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How WHS Has Changed in Australia Since 2020: The Role of ISO 45001 and ISO 45003

Published: July 10, 2024
Multiracial business people having meeting

Organisational approaches to managing Work Health and Safety (WHS) in Australia have significantly shifted since 2020. Much of this has been driven by organisational, governmental, and societal responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, driven by new laws, changing work environments, patterns and ways of working, and a heightened focus on employee well-being. Additionally, federal reviews into workplace behaviours, new research and information about hazards, and changing societal expectations about the management of workplaces and behaviours have also contributed to changes in legislation and the development and release of new Codes of Practice in Australia, and new international standards for managing WHS.

Legislative Changes and Evolving Work Environments

Since 2020, several key legislative changes have aimed to enhance WHS frameworks across Australia. Notably, amendments to the Model WHS Laws have focused on clarifying responsibilities, increasing penalties for non-compliance, and introducing new categories of offences. These legislative updates ensure that organisations maintain rigorous safety standards to keep workplaces safer and maintain accountability for WHS where it belongs – at the top.

The COVID-19 pandemic catalysed a shift towards remote and hybrid working arrangements for many organisations and industries. This transformation brought about new challenges, including ensuring ergonomic home office setups and remotely managing mental health and well-being. Consequently, the traditional approaches to WHS had to be adapted to address these new realities. For industries that were unable to change to remote working (e.g., healthcare, manufacturing, hospitality), the changes to requirements in relation to workplace hygiene and social distancing resulted in significant shifts in worker behaviours and WHS risk management.

The Role of ISO 45001 in Enhancing WHS

ISO 45001, the international standard for occupational health and safety management systems, has become a key player in the Australian WHS landscape. Released initially in 2018, many organisations’ transition plans from AS/NZS 4801:2001 or OHSAS 18001:2009 were significantly impacted by the pandemic, and the International Accreditation Forum (IAF) delayed the normal 3-year transition period for new standards as a result.

According to the Joint Accreditation System of Australia and New Zealand (JAS-ANZ), 8,261 organisations in Australia and 663 in New Zealand are currently certified to ISO 4500. Globally, the 2022 ISO Survey results indicate that 397,339 organisations are certified to ISO 45001. This significant global uptake highlights the critical importance organisations place on maintaining high standards of occupational health and safety and we expect to see an increase in the number of organisations certified to the standard when ISO releases the 2023 ISO Survey results in September.

Whilst alignment with ISO 45001 isn’t a legal requirement, implementing a management system aligned with its requirements offers several benefits:

  1. Systematic Risk Management: ISO 45001 provides a structured approach to identifying and mitigating risks. This helps organisations proactively address potential hazards, reducing the likelihood of workplace incidents.
  2. Regulatory Compliance: Adopting ISO 45001 helps organisations to develop processes to understand their compliance obligations and keep this information up to date, helping an organisation to comply with the latest WHS legislation, thus avoiding penalties and enhancing their reputation.
  3. Improvement: The standard emphasises continual improvement through regular audits, performance evaluations and reviews, as well as the implementation of corrective actions for any identified issues. This approach encourages organisations to consistently enhance their WHS practices, leading to sustained safety performance improvements.
  4. Worker Engagement: ISO 45001 fosters a culture of safety by involving employees in the development and implementation of WHS practices. Engaged workers are more likely to adhere to safety protocols and contribute to a safer work environment.

ISO 45001 is intended to provide requirements for a management system to cover all of an organisation’s WHS hazards and risks, and requires the use of the hierarchy of control when eliminating hazards and reducing risks.

Addressing Psychosocial Risks with ISO 45003

The introduction of ISO 45003 has been pivotal in helping organisations to identify, assess, and manage psychosocial risks. ISO 45003 provides guidelines for managing psychological health and safety within an occupational health and safety management system, with a structure that is aligned with the requirements of ISO 45001. Its benefits include:

  1. Holistic Well-Being: ISO 45003 encourages organisations to take a comprehensive approach to employee well-being, considering both physical and mental health. This holistic view is crucial in today’s work environments, where incident and claim statistics in relation to psychosocial risks are increasing across Australia.
  2. Risk Identification and Mitigation: The standard provides a framework for identifying psychosocial hazards, such as workplace stressors and organisational culture issues. By addressing these factors, businesses can create a more supportive and healthy work environment. It provides significant guidance for the workplace factors that influence psychosocial risks.
  3. Supportive Work Culture: Implementing ISO 45003 helps build a culture that understands and prioritises mental health and well-being. This cultural shift can lead to increased job satisfaction, reduced absenteeism, and improved overall productivity.
  4. Legal and Ethical Responsibility: As awareness of mental health issues grows, businesses face increasing pressure to address psychosocial risks. ISO 45003 helps organisations meet their legal and ethical obligations to protect employees’ mental well-being.

ISO 45003 is a Type B standard, meaning that while many organisations may align their management systems approach to the guidance in the standard, there is not a certification scheme that relates to ISO 45003. The guidance outlined in ISO 45003 is relevant to ISO 45001 so organisations that follow it are closer to achieving compliance with ISO 45001 and applying it to the context of psychosocial risk management.

Codes of Practice

Recent years have seen new codes of practice introduced across Australia to manage psychosocial risks in the workplace. These codes provide comprehensive guidelines for organisations to identify, assess, and control psychosocial hazards, such as stress, bullying, harassment, and job insecurity. The aim is to create safer and healthier work environments by promoting proactive measures, including regular risk assessments, employee consultations, and the implementation of control measures tailored to specific psychosocial risks.

The development of these new codes of practice is part of a broader national effort to address the significant impact of psychosocial risks on workers’ health and safety. They emphasise the need for a systematic approach, encouraging organisations to develop clear policies and procedures, provide training and resources, and foster a supportive workplace culture. The codes also highlight the legal responsibilities of employers to protect their employees from harm, reinforcing the duty of care principles enshrined in WHS laws.


The WHS landscape in Australia has evolved significantly since 2020, driven by legislative changes, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the adoption of international standards such as ISO 45001 and ISO 45003. These standards have provided organisations with robust frameworks for managing both physical and psychological risks, ensuring safer and healthier workplaces. With these new guidelines, Australia aims to set a benchmark for managing psychosocial risks, ensuring that mental health is given the same priority as physical health in workplace safety practices.

When an organisation chooses to align their practices to internationally-recognised standards such as ISO 45001 and ISO 45003, they foster a culture of continual improvement and employee engagement. As businesses navigate the complexities of the modern work environment, these standards will continue to play a crucial role in safeguarding the well-being of Australian workers.

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