What Victoria’s new environment protection law means for OHS

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Wednesday, 19 January, 2022 - 12:00
Industry news

Victoria’s new Environment Protection Act 2017, which came into force on July 2021, is the biggest change in environment protection legislation since the original Environment Protection Act 1970, according to health & safety, environment and emergency management consultancy Greencap.

The new Act has enhanced powers to prevent risks to the environment and human health, with a change of focus from responding to pollution (or “cleaning up after a spill”) to preventing the pollution in the first place, said Jean Meaklim, senior principal consultant with Greencap.

“It is based on similar principles to the Occupational Health & Safety (OHS) Act, where a person or business has to assess their business activities for risks to health and the environment, put in place safeguards to prevent or manage the risks before they happen, and provide training and supervision to staff to work with the safeguards to protect health and the environment,” said Meaklim, who will present on Victoria’s new environment protection legislation together with Peter Oxnam, Greencap principal consultant – environment, as part of an AIHS webinar which will be held on Wednesday 16 February at 2.30pm.

The General Environmental Duty (GED) is a centrepiece of the new laws and Meaklim said it applies to all Victorians.

“If you conduct activities that pose a risk to human health and the environment, you must understand those risks, and you must also take reasonably practicable steps to eliminate or minimise them,” said Meaklim.

“In an Australian first, the GED is criminally enforceable.” The GED is similar to the duty under the Victorian Occupational Health & Safety Act 2004 Section 21, where employers have a duty to provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to health, whereas the GED requires risk assessment, mitigation and training to maintain workplaces that are safe to health and the environment.

“The Environment Protection Authority (EPA) have said they will support businesses that have taken reasonable steps to understand and meet their obligations under the Act. They will also support businesses that must make major changes to their compliance obligations,” said Meaklim.

However, for those who haven’t attempted to understand or follow the new laws, Meaklim said the EPA will act to ensure obligations are met. “The EPA can now issue stronger sanctions and penalties to hold environmental polluters to account,” she said.

Another new concept is the ‘state of knowledge’, which Meaklim says is all the information businesses should reasonably know about managing your business’s risks, including an understanding of risks your business may pose to human health and the environment, and steps you should take to eliminate or reduce those risks.

This includes information from the EPA; other relevant government departments (such as WorkSafe), business and industry associations, and independent organisations like Standards Australia and universities.

“The state of knowledge can change over time, as different ways of working develop, and new risks emerge,” said Meaklim.

“There are also changes to some of the licensing provisions, with some new businesses now requiring a license or registration.”

There are a number of implications for OHS professionals to be aware of, depending on the type and scale of the industry they work in.

However, Meaklim said all industry sectors should review their business activities and identify any that may impact the environment.

For example, chemical use or storage, air emissions or waste management should ensure these activities are managed to prevent or minimise risks to health and the environment, and companies should document risk assessment and mitigation actions so that there is evidence, should it be required.

“Consulting EPA industry guidance is a great starting point for a business seeking assistance in managing their environmental risks,” said Meaklim.

Greencap’s Jean Meaklim and Peter Oxnam will deliver an online webinar on Victoria’s new Environment Protection Act 2017 on Wednesday 16 February at 2.30pm. For more information call (03) 8336 1995, email or visit the event website.