HR professionals are from Saturn, WHS professionals are from Mercury, so how on Earth could they ever work together?

In many organisations, human resources (and employee relations) (HR) teams and work health and safety (WHS) teams have operated like two (space) ships in the night – often working on the same projects and problems in parallel, yet unfortunately not always in complete harmony. This must change, and will, whether people like it or not.

Why the rift?

There is a common and, unfortunately, frequently repeated assessment of the scope of HR and WHS teams’ roles: HR people deal with subjective matters and WHS people deal with objective matters.

The truth is, there are elements of both in the work that HR and WHS teams do. Never has this been more evident than in the last few years.

So why change now?

Organisations worldwide were kicked into a tailspin in 2020 and 2021 when the Covid-19 pandemic struck. Unforeseen challenges and ideas were thrown at workplaces, many without ever having been dealt with before, like mandatory vaccinations, stand-downs, the rise of working-from-home, as well as the impacts of travel and border restrictions. Each of these presented unique challenges for HR and WHS teams who were tasked with ensuring that workers felt secure, healthy and safe at work (wherever that was).

In the face of these challenges, we saw many instances of HR and WHS teams coming together to find solutions that worked for their organisations – although this cross-functional approach felt more novel than it ought to have.

That is, Covid-19 should not be the exception to the rule, it should be seen as a benchmark for what cross-team collaboration can look like when done effectively.

A raft of recent legislative changes mean that cross-functional collaboration is more important than ever.

How can it work?

An obvious example of where WHS and HR teamwork must occur is in dealing with psychosocial hazards. Unlike other safety matters which are often conjured to mind when someone says ‘WHS’, psychosocial hazards are not physical and cannot effectively be managed by elimination or engineering controls – that is, because they are often perceived and responded to differently by individuals.

Take a performance management or ‘show cause’ process, for example. Some people might find the process uncomfortable or distressing.

Does that mean that they shouldn’t be put through it at all then? Absolutely not. Reasonable management action, when carried out in a reasonable way, is a legitimate way for managers and supervisors to lead, give feedback and make employment related decisions.

What it does mean is that serious consideration needs to be given in advance to how the processes are run to ensure they are designed in a way that minimises the risk of psychological harm arising.

Similar completely closeable information gaps presented themselves in light of organisations’ responses to Respect@Work changes – which saw a positive duty introduced to eliminate, as far as possible, sex-based discrimination and harassment, and sexual harassment.

Addressing these changes can no longer be thought of as ‘just an HR issue’ or ‘just a WHS issue’, these are issues which require forward-thinking input and action, drawing on the broad expertise of both WHS and HR teams in tandem (and potentially others too).

What can organisations do?

Proactive discussions are required. Given the nature of many risks arising at work today – particularly to psychological health – by the time a risk has presented physically or to the point it is noticeable, significant issues may have already developed, making it much more difficult to address.

Frequent and ongoing consultation between HR and WHS teams will assist all parties greatly. Patterns or trends can only be identified over a period of time and a sequence of observations – meaning that regular conversations about things that are happening will likely be of assistance in addressing issues as they arise.

How can a WHS team develop and advise on effective controls without their colleagues in HR providing insights into the work practices and issues arising with workers?

Equally, how can HR teams train workers and manage situations without first having discussed controls and possible risks with a WHS team?

The answer to both these questions is quite simply, they can’t.

Policies must also be developed collaboratively – with input from both HR teams (who will generally enforce the policies and have a practical understanding of the workplace) and WHS teams (who may have ideas about possible controls).

Reporting frameworks should be established (and reviewed regularly) so that feedback can be provided and records kept in relation to how incidents have been managed. These reports should of course then be circulated among both HR and WHS teams so that all team members stay across developments. Where the matter being reported relates to something that was discussed previously between HR and WHS teams, it is appropriate for a follow-up or debrief to take place to unpack what occurred and what can be improved.

And it’s not just Kingston Reid who has identified this as an emerging issue (with a simple and achievable solution). Marie Boland, CEO of Safe Work Australia, called out the need for HR and WHS collaboration at the Australian Institute of Health and Safety’s 2024 National Health and Safety Conference:

[An] area [Safe Work Australia] will focus on is evaluation how new psychosocial regulations are being embedded into safety systems.

A key question here will be how HR and [industrial relations] professionals are working together with WHS practitioners to bring a holistic approach to workplace relations.’

Key Takeaways

It is unacceptable in the current regulatory and legislative landscape for HR and WHS teams to adopt a ‘stay in your lane’ mentality when dealing with matters at work. Collaboration is essential and must be undertaken if organisations wish to stay on top of their legislative obligations and arising workplace issues more broadly.

  • WHS and HR teams must collaborate:
    • frequently;
    • proactively;
    • openly; and
    • wholistically.
  • Recent changes mean workplace issues now incorporate safety elements and human resources elements – each of which requires expertise in dealing with.
  • HR and WHS team members must constantly be asking themselves about how a matter may develop into a situation where they need input from each other. The earlier these questions are asked, the better.
  • Regular reporting of HR and WHS matters should be circulated widely to generate awareness and encourage proactive engagement.
  • Without limiting informal means of collaboration, HR and WHS teams should sit on consultative committees and processes, for the purposes of:
    • facilitating a broader, cross-functional discussion regarding the performance of, and intersection between the organisation’s policies and work practices;
    • sharing relevant activities and information; and
    • assessing the organisation’s compliance with its legal obligations.

To keep up with the latest developments across employment, workplace relations and workplace health and safety law, sign up to our e-newsletter, Kingston Reidable by emailing [email protected].

The views expressed in this article are general in nature only and do not constitute legal advice.

Please do not hesitate to contact us if you require specific advice tailored to the needs of your organisation in relation to the implications of these changes for your organisation.


Xavier Burton
+61 8 6381 7068
[email protected]
Sarah-Jayne Rayner
Senior Associate
+61 7 3071 3122
[email protected]