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This term "Officer"

Weekly WHS Article 4th April 2024


When talking about the highest level of management people in a business, those individuals who are entrusted with significant decision-making authority and set company goals, create initiatives, and oversee the running of the business, are termed “officers.”  This term is defined and explained fully in the Corporations Act 2001.

 

In actuality, “Officers” are the Directors, CEOs, COOs, CFOs and those people that are in charge of the business.  A business is a name on paper. It is not a living person. The term used is “Person Conducting a Business Or Undertaking.” (Person in this context means business entity, not a human being.) While a PCBU is non-human, the Officers of the PCBU are human beings.


Officers run the Business

Under the WHS Act, officers have specific duties. They must ensure, among other things, that the business is demonstrating a “duty of care” with evidence to prove it. This is different from “duty of care” under Common Law which is the duty to render assistance when there has been an accident or a disaster or when someone could be expected to help out or step in to help avert circumstances that might be life threatening to others. This is obligation applies to every human being in society. This is the non-business application of “duty of care.”


In an employer-employee scenario the duty of care obligation is the primary duty of every business or undertaking. No one else listed in the hierarchy of duty holders with WHS duties has the primary duty of care than the business entity itself. Officers, being real people, must go about their activities as managers of and representatives of the business with these obligations always in mind. Officers may be personally liable for a health and safety breach and may be fined or go to jail in serious instances.

 

Sometimes the term “officer” can be confused. Some businesses have “Safety Officers” and “HR Officers” or variations of such positions with the word “officer” in the title. These people are not directors or CEOs, they are managers and team leaders. Under the WHS Act, supervisors and managers at this level are classified as “workers.” They manage the people doing the work and report to the senior management or depending on the size of the business may even report directly to the director, CEO of GM of the company. “General Manager” is another term to be aware of. A “GM” is not necessarily the GM of the company but could be a “GM of Health and Safety” or “GM of Operations” etc. That type of GM is not a Director or CEO. They are not an officer if they are not in a position to make major decisions for the business as a whole.

 

This is a little gem from one of our WHS trainers from years ago about this. Let me share it with you:

 

“For some businesses where there are managers and supervisors that have the word “officer” in their title (such as “Safety Officer” or “WHS Officer”), rather than use same word to describe the “officers” of the business, to reduce any possibility of confusion instead use “director”, or “CEO” etc. Avoid using the word “officer” when the business has “officers” who are not in fact “Officers.” Keep it simple. If they don’t know, we will teach them on the course. That’s what we do.”

 

The WHS Act gives Officers specific duties that apply to the management of workplace health and safety. These duties are mandatory and apply to all directors and CEOs, of every business that employs staff. You can look these up for yourself in the WHS Act under Section 27 which applies specific to directors and CEOs, and information that correlates in Sections 19, 46-49 and 70 of the Act (among others.)

 

Workers have duties under WHS law too. They don’t have the “duty of care” obligation that applies to the business in the first place, but they do have the “duty to reasonably comply” with appropriate direction and supervision from managers and supervisors. Workers must also keep an eye out for the welfare of their fellow workers and any visitors to the workplace. They cannot stand back and let someone do something reckless or be unsafe in their work. This is covered in Section 28 of the WHS Act.

 

Every WHS duty holder must know their duties.

“Who is an officer [of a business]” can be one of the first valuable lessons a person learns when learning about WHS law for the first time. The structure of WHS law is actually very simple. It can be learned easily as it is laid out in a logical sequence. We do that training.


One of the first things a director or CEO needs to know and be clear on are their legal obligations in managing their business. This includes their obligations to provide the WHS management system and ensure the health and safety of their people. This is very important knowledge. Being trained in this so you know how to do the right thing is your “get out of jail card.”

 

If you are interested in having your people learn more about WHS law, feel free to contact one of our knowledgeable and experienced consultants here at Courtenell on 02 9552 2066. Stephen Georgulis @ stephen.g@courtenell.com.au or Kevin Gaskell @ kevin.g@courtenell.com.au are available to assist you.





4th April 2024








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