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Principal contractors in ACT now obligated to consult with unions

If you are involved in a construction project in the ACT worth more than $5,000,000, you need to be aware of new consultation obligations that became operational on 1 January 2019.

As a result of the significant number of serious incidents in the ACT over the last 5 years, the government has introduced new obligations for principal contractors to consult with unions regarding safety at large size construction projects. The obligation does not apply to single-dwelling projects.

In moving away from other jurisdictions, the ACT government has decided that a worker’s request to establish important collaborative tools such as health and safety committees (HSCs) and Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs) is not sufficient. As such, the amended legislation now puts an obligation on the principal contractor of major construction projects to:

  • consult with an eligible union, which is based on the type of workers present at a workplace, for the purposes of obtaining advice in relation to the number and composition of work groups and numbers of HSRs — this is a consultation requirement separate to the negotiations that would then happen with workers regarding the agreement of work groups;
  • require election and training of HSRs; and
  • require the election and training of HSCs.

The ACT government stated that the purpose of these amendments is to achieve a consistent approach to safety consultation, participation and training on major construction projects. In particular, the training of HSRs and HSCs is seen as an important aspect of enhancing the role of HSRs and HSCs on major construction projects and educating workers about health and safety obligations under the WHS Act and identifying and addressing risks in the workplace.

What happens now?

At this stage, it is too early to say how these laws will be adopted by the ACT construction industry and precisely how it will be enforced.

Quite possibly, it will result in disputes between principal contractors and unions which, apart from the impact on the project itself, will likely require involvement of the inspector. Any decision made by the inspector could, if not followed, result in penalties being imposed.

Other regulators have not implemented these changes, but it is possible that after a period of successful review it may be implemented in other jurisdictions as well.

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