Construction and OHS: how they affect you

by FM Media

As a facility manager, you may think the OHS legal obligations regarding ‘construction works’ don’t apply to you… think again, writes Adam Saunders from law firm Sparke Helmore.

We all recognise the significance of OHS obligations in the workplace; these obligations may extend further than you realise. Facility managers need to be aware of the legal definition of ‘construction works’ and how this may extend their OHS obligations.
While the definition of ‘construction work’ varies from state to state, it is generally understood as the erection of a building, or part of a building. What is not widely known is that building works that occur long after a building has been built and the tenants have moved in may also be defined as ‘construction works’.
Many facility managers may think they do not actually engage in any construction work, and therefore may be unaware that the OHS obligations regarding ‘construction works’ apply to them; however, anything from a small installation, which may take less than an hour, to a major design project, which could take months, can be regarded as construction work.
Construction works can include:

  • alterations
  • conversions
  • fitting out or refurbishment of a part of a building
  • refitting an office
  • installing an air-conditioning system
  • removing an internal office wall
  • installing a lift/escalator, and
  • installing an alarm system.

Work that is not likely to be considered ‘construction works’ includes:

  • routine or minor testing
  • maintenance or repair work performed in connection with a building
  • regular inspections of lifts
  • replacing smoke detectors, and
  • routine servicing or minor repairs of air-conditioning systems.

So, what are the main OHS obligations for ‘construction works’? They may include:

  • eliminating or (if this is not possible) controlling the risks to health or safety
  • reviewing and revising measures implemented to control risks
  • completing safe work method statements (similar to JSAs) for employees involved in ‘high risk work’, and
  • completing an accredited construction induction training course.

‘Construction works’ and contractors
The owners of buildings, tenants, contractors, visitors, customers to the building and employees of facility managers all have obligations. Complying with these obligations is not always easy, as the interests and duties of each party will often conflict and overlap.
The extent of a facility manager’s OHS obligation is related to the degree of control that the facility manager has over the work being undertaken. In certain circumstances, facility managers will continue to have control over the workplace, particularly in situations where business continues to operate while construction work is undertaken in the building they are managing. If the facility manager is not in a position to direct or control the employees on-site, either because there is no direct contractual relationship with them or because of the facilities manager’s lack of knowledge in the area, the OHS obligations may change.
Overlapping OHS obligations exist in situations where, for example, the facility manager engages an electrician. Both parties will be required to provide a working environment that is safe and without risks to health. The facility manager’s OHS obligations in this instance may include providing information on-site rules to the electrician, and the electrician providing training and supervision to their employees.
The effective management of contractors will minimise the OHS risks to contractors themselves (including their employees and subcontractors) and also people in the building, including visitors and other staff who work there.
Regardless of the particular arrangements in place it is critical all parties understand the nature of the role during all stages of contractor engagement, from pre-engagement to completion of a project.
Facility managers should implement and maintain effective OHS and contractor management systems in order to minimise the risks associated with ‘construction works’.

Adam Saunders is a senior associate in the Melbourne workplace group in law firm Sparke Helmore. Sparke Helmore specialises in providing advice in OHS legal obligations, workplace incidents, workplace prosecutions and the development of workplace safety systems and training workshops.

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