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The Times Are A Changing - Environmentally

Posted by Richard Forster on 9 March 2021

Here in Victoria, it has been interesting as a layperson, to see the evolution environmental management from the almost impenetrable into something that may mirror and rival Occupational health and safety (OHS) in its application.

New environmental laws  are intended to come into effect on 1 July 2021. This was delayed from 1 July 2020 due to COVID-19. The laws will require all businesses to prevent and manage the risks of harm to people and the environment from their activities.

The laws will introduce a duty focused on prevention, called the general environmental duty (referred to as GED). This duty requires you to eliminate or reduce the risks of harm to people or the environment from pollution and waste, so far as reasonably practicable. These are terms that are no stranger to any person involved in OHS.

This means you will need to proactively manage the risks of harm, as well as deal with the impacts of pollution and waste after they have occurred.

The new laws apply to all businesses in Victoria, from small retail stores to large factories.

Businesses need to:

  • understand the impacts of your business activities on people and the environment
  • manage any risks of harm.

A risk management process is recommended that does indeed mirror that of OHS. The infographic below is shown on the Environment Protection Authority Victoria website https://www.epa.vic.gov.au/

  1. Identify any hazards or activities at your business that could cause harm.
  2. Assess how severe the risk is, based on the likelihood of it happening and its consequence.
  3. Implement suitable risk control measures.
  4. Check controls regularly to make sure they are working.

EPA has acknowledged the similarity by stating that.

"Larger businesses or those with greater risks of harm may require systems, procedures and documentation. Some businesses may already be managing some environmental risks through their efforts to comply with Victoria's occupational health and safety laws. For example, using and storing chemicals and fuels safely, and keeping their business clean and tidy"

To help identify what is reasonably practicable under the GED, the following questions need to be answered for your activity:

  1. Eliminate first can you eliminate the risk?  If it is not reasonably practicable to eliminate the risk, think about how you can reduce it.
  2. Likelihood what is the chance harm will occur? Has the harm occurred before on your site or has it commonly occurred on other sites? Seek information from suppliers, manufacturers or industry.
  3. Degree how severe could the harm be to human health or the environment?  
  4. Your knowledge about the risks what do you know, or what can you find out, about the risks your activities pose? How can you address those risks to human health and the environment? To find out more, see 'state of knowledge'.
  5. Availability and suitability what technology, processes or equipment are available to control the risk? What controls are suitable for use in your circumstances?
  6. Cost how much does the control cost to put in place compared to how effective would it be in reducing risk? Importantly, the most effective solution will not always be the most expensive. Likewise, a cheaper solution may not be the most effective available to control the risk. 

Again, practically the same as with OHS.

'State of knowledge' is all the information you should reasonably know about managing your business's risks.

This includes information from:

  • EPA
  • your business
  • industry
  • government
  • Independent organisations like Standards Australia
  • Universities
  • Environmental engineers

EPA provides clear and accessible industry guidance. This helps businesses manage their environmental risks. https://www.epa.vic.gov.au/for-business/new-laws-and-your-business/understanding-your-environmental-obligations

In theory it should make managing OHS and environmental issues easier and may lead to more integrated management systems. Time will tell.

Author:Richard Forster


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