work health and safety interventions

Business is always looking to improve workplace safety performance. But how do they do so when often working within a highly regulated environment? We review the research that investigates the most effective work health and safety interventions by the Regulator according to business activities and size. These findings come out of a review of literature in a paper published by Safe Work Australia investigating the effectiveness of interventions by the Regulator. That report is lengthy with much of the interesting information found in the body. We thought you might welcome the key points in this article.

The work health and safety interventions reviewed within the report were:

1. Regulations

The introduction of new regulations is more likely to result in improved work health and safety outcomes for larger businesses, businesses that pay attention to regulations and businesses that have a positive perception of the regulator. Other influencing factors are the level of hazardous activities undertaken by the business.  The higher the risk, the greater the level of attention given to new regulations. Small businesses may fail in their understanding of what they need to do in order to comply. Businesses are not a homogeneous group and the process that businesses go through to comply with a new regulation is complicated.  The ‘one size fits all’ approach to regulation is sometimes a poor fit and different levels of advice and support are needed for large compared to small businesses.

See our courses Health & Safety Fundamentals and Health & Wellbeing Fundamentals.

2. Inspections

Work health and safety inspections aim to influence behaviour by providing advice and through enforcement and fines. Rather than reducing the overall injury rate, inspections may reduce the severity. An inspection may highlight safety non-compliance and gain a managers’ attention to safety overall. Inspections can improve health and safety outcomes but they play different roles for large and small businesses. For small businesses and for businesses with little or no previous experience of inspections, the Inspector may be the only contact with the Regulator. They may lack understanding of how regulations apply to their business activities. The Regulator plays a key advisory role.

For medium and large businesses, inspections that include penalties are more likely to lead to changes in behaviour. Large business is keen to avoid potential reputational damage as a result of enforcement action and fines made public.

See our short course Conducting a Safety Audit.

3. Prosecutions

When a business is prosecuted for breaching work health and safety laws, a clear signal is sent about the seriousness of the behaviour to act as a deterrent to re-offend. The research shows that prosecutions only have a small deterrent effect and that they resonate more with large businesses. One reason behind the low level of deterrence as argued by Jamieson, et al, is that courts often imposed only small penalties, the prosecution focussed on the specific nature of the events leading up to the accident and small business were generally unaware of prosecutions.  Large business was once again motivated to avoid risk to their reputation for breaches that led to prosecution. However, there is no research that details the impact on businesses that are prosecuted.

See our article BAR Industrial Manslaughter Case and Safety.

4. Guidance Material

Substantial guidance materials and codes of practice have been developed by work health and safety regulators. However, there is little evidence of their effectiveness in producing changes in behaviour. Key reasons are that small and medium-sized businesses have difficulty applying the general information to their circumstances. They need specific information about what they should do. Secondly, the intended outcomes for guidance materials are not specified. Guidance materials interwoven into policies and procedures are more likely to be effective, rather than assuming that all business will understand the requirements and apply to their practices.

5. Safety Campaigns

Campaigns are effective ways to improve safety behaviour, especially if coupled with enforcement and education. Evidence of success can be seen in road safety and health campaigns, e.g. smoking. Campaigns typically focus on a specific safety issue and should include consequences for non-compliance as well information on what is required to comply. Time is needed to embed safety behavioural change ideas with research suggesting between 3-5 years for each new campaign.

See our article, How Critical Are Training Records in Proving Safety Compliance?

6. Enforceable Undertakings

As an alternative to prosecutions, enforceable undertakings are negotiated between businesses and the Regulator and undertaken over a specified period of time in order to meet compliance requirements. An enforceable undertaking requires a substantial and legally enforceable commitment from the business that goes beyond simply meeting specific regulatory requirements, but it does avoid prosecution. There is currently very little evidence regarding whether enforceable undertakings are an effective way of changing work health and safety practices and no evidence as to how they compare with prosecutions. However, making managers understand the poor past practices and the need to comply may lead to positive improvements to safety practices in the future.

7. Voluntary Partnerships and Incentives

Voluntary partnership schemes may offer incentives to businesses to participate in the form of either financial rewards, access to information and support services or public recognition of excellent performance in the target area. Individual businesses often come up with the most efficient and cost-effective solutions for their activities, e.g. environmental performance, whereby they benefit from good performance. This is where safety awards for best practice also come to the fore. Rather than being forced to comply with regulated work health and safety interventions, businesses choose to participate. Wright, et al. (2008) found evidence of a decline in injury rates associated with participation in a voluntary partnership scheme in the UK.  However, due to a lack of trust between businesses and the Regulator these programmes tend to be unsuccessful in the US. For voluntary schemes to be successful there needs to be a pre-existing relationship of trust between the business and the Regulator. Finally, participation in the scheme needs to have an added value for the business.

See our course, The Role of the Supervisor.


This research set out to investigate which work health and safety interventions work for businesses and for whom they work best and under what circumstances. There were three themes that emerged across all interventions for which the relevance varies across business size:

  • concern for reputation,
  • understanding what is needed to comply, and
  • the weight of the regulatory authority.

Large businesses are more concerned about influences on their reputation; whereas small businesses seek to understand what they need to do in order to comply. However, the research concludes that there is very little information available on the:

  • effectiveness of any regulatory interventions in Australia,
  • impact of circumstances such as the economic climate on the effectiveness of work health and safety interventions, and
  • effectiveness of prosecutions, guidance material, enforceable undertakings and incentives and voluntary partnership schemes.

Final Word

So if work health and safety interventions, such as regulations, prosecutions, guidance material and enforceable undertakings seem to make little difference in safety behaviour improvements, what does? It seems that using positive approaches, such as encouraging businesses with incentives and voluntary partnership schemes, is better than the big stick approach. Businesses are more concerned about being viewed as good corporate citizens by providing workplaces that people wish to work at and do business with. It appears that the link to productivity and well-being is resonating loudly. Keeping people physically and mentally safe is the Tap into Safety mantra that seems to fit well in the business of today.

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