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How to Avoid a WHS Disaster Do Everything “Reasonably Practicable”

The safety message for the past week must surely be; “Always be prepared for the unexpected and the unlikely ”. Even though the message came from West Australia it applies to all workplaces in Australia, even if you don’t have a train in your workplace. Our WHS article this week provides an overview of how a workplace can be prepared for the unexpected and unlikely by complying with WHS legislation.

In the WA incident last week, the train driver, on his way to Port Hedland, had to stop his train and get off to inspect one of the wagons. Who would expect that the train, as if it was exercising its own free will, might take off, leaving the driver behind, and somehow accelerate up to an average speed of 110 kilometres an hour and continue the journey to Port Hedland with no human being on board.

The only available solution to eliminate the risk of death and disaster from the driverless, runaway train coming towards Port Hedland at high speed was to derail the train before it got there. The derailment of the train that consisted of 4 train engines pulling 268 wagons carrying iron ore certainly caught the interest of persons in the safety community and the general public. No one was injured or killed by the derailment but the damage and repair to the four train engines, the wagons, and about 1.5 kilometres of train track, must surely cost in the 10s of millions of dollars.

So how can you avoid having an unlikely disaster in your workplace?

The answer lies in the PCBU’s duty to do everything reasonably practicable to ensure the health and safety of everyone in the workplace. And that includes applying risk management to any health and safety risks in their workplace as required by the WHS Act and WHS Regulation - (WA has not adopted the harmonised WHS legislation system but has similar OHS laws).

The term “risk management” is explained at page 5 of SafeWork NSW’s Code of Practice: How to Manage Health and Safety Risks, as;

“Risk management is a proactive process that helps you respond to change and facilitate continuous improvement in your business. It should be planned, systematic and cover all reasonably foreseeable hazards and associated risks.”

And the process of risk management includes taking “into account the possibility of thoughtlessness, or inadvertence, or carelessness, particularly in the case of repetitive work or mundane tasks” (see ref 1).

Section 18 of the WHS Act sets out the factors that a PCBU must take into account in order to satisfy the “reasonably practicable” requirement. The factors include “the likelihood of the hazard or risk occurring”, and the degree of harm that might result from the hazard or risk”. So a potential high degree of harm has to be eliminated or controlled even though it is unlikely to occur. For example it may be highly unlikely that a runaway, driverless train would speed into Port Hedland but the potential harm of death and disaster if it did would be unacceptably high so that risk has to be eliminated or controlled.

The train incident in WA is a compelling illustration of the importance of managing WHS risks as required in WHS section 17 by eliminating risks to health and safety so far as reasonably practicable, and if that is not possible, then do everything reasonably practicable to minimise the risks.


The WA train incident is now being investigated by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau which is Australia’s national transport safety investigator. Also the Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator is investigating to see if there had been any breach of the Rail Safety National Law. And BHP is also conducting an investigation.


1. Paragraph 83, Andonovski v Park-Tec Engineering Pty Ltd and Barbeques Galore Pty Ltd; Andonovski v East Realisations Pty Ltd (No 6) and Anor [2015] NSWSC 341 (31 March 2015)

13th November 2018


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