What has the union movement done for OHS?

Ensuring safe and healthy workplaces has always been one of the fundamental roles of unions.

The union movement believes that when people come together, great results can be achieved.

The advantage of collective action with fellow workers is that the voices of each individual becomes stronger and louder when combined.


Statistics show that unionised workplaces are safer than those lacking union representation. Workers in a unionised workplace are 70 per cent more likely to be aware of OHS hazards and issues.


Over the last 160 years unions have campaigned tirelessly to reduce injury and illness within the workplace, and many of the current rights and conditions have been fought for and won by unions.

Workplace safety is paramount to all working Australians and it is through various union assisted initiatives that ensured that this right was extended through all workplaces through law.


The International Labour Organisation estimates that more than 2 million people die from work-related causes every year. This is expected to be a relatively modest estimation as many countries lack the adequate reporting mechanisms.


Between 1960 and 1970 workers won a wide range of health and safety improvements at work including meal and rest breaks, accident make-up pay, improved conditions in mines, protective clothing and weight restrictions for lifting. Unions continued to press on to campaign for further occupational health and safety (OHS) standards across Australia.

The Australian government finally recognised the importance of OHS in the workplace and established the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission (NOHSC) to lead and co-ordinate national OHS improvements. This function is now performed by Safe Work Australia  - a tripartite, indpendent body responsible developing policy, preparing model legislation, data analysis and other related activities.

While the dangers of asbestos were known as early as the 1920s, it wasn't until the 1970s and 1980s that Australian unions began campaign aggressively to eradicate the mining and usage of asbestos.

Under union pressure James Hardie finally signed a historic agreement with the NSW government (where most of their workers were affected) in 2005 providing a $4.5 billion fund for victims affected by asbestos.

The following year saw the Beaconsfield Mine Disaster in Tasmania where one miner was killed and another two were trapped for 14 days. This event catapulted the need for further reform on safety standards specifically within the mining sector.

From January 2012, the new Work Health & Safety laws came into effect in all States & Territories except Victoria and Western Australia. For more information and updates about harmonisation, please click (here)

Unions have and will continue to ensure that the five key areas of concern are addressed and improved throughout the process.


These include:

  • Giving workers a say

It is essential that every worker has a chance to voice their concerns and opinions regarding any OHS changes in their workplace, therefore any new legislative changes should make explicit reference to this right.

  • Make employers responsible

Employers should be unqualifiably responsible for ensuring their workplaces are safe. When something goes wrong the onus should be on the employer to prove that they didn’t do the wrong thing. Employers should actively look for problems and ensure they’re addressed before a problem occurs.

  • Empowering health and safety representatives

Health and safety reps are the backbone of the system to protect workers and ensure that employers are being compliant. They need to have the necessary powers and functions to allow them to perform in the interest of the workers they represent. Reps should have autonomy in choosing where they will carry out their training or where they get their advice.

  • Respecting the role of unions

Unions play a vital role in ensuring that workers are consulted on any health and safety issues in the workplace. Research shows that unionised workplaces in Australia are three times more likely to have an OHS committee and are twice likely to have done an OHS workplace audit than those that had no union representatives.

OHS is an important issue that involves a consultative approach and unions should be able to represent their workers on this important issue. That’s why these ways need to ensure that unions have the ability to act on behalf of their workers.

  • The right to take court action

The right to prosecute has ensured that dodgy employers are answerable to the law for their bad health and safety practices. This right needs to extend beyond regulatory bodies because the truth is there are just not enough inspectors to ensure all workplaces are safe and healthy. The right for unions to prosecute has been proven to improve health and safety in workplaces.



The union advantage

All Australian workers have the basic rights to join or associate with a union as they see fit.
Union members earn on average $100 more than non-union members that is because as a collective you are in a better position to negotiate your salary and conditions.

They are a collective representation of the workforce in an organisation and can assist on various industrial issues such as:

  • Wages and entitlements
  • Unfair treatment and harassment at work
  • Work related injuries or illness
  • Special membership benefits

To find out more Join a union