Do employers need to provide drinking water for employees?

Analysis

Do employers need to provide drinking water for employees?

The human body is up to 60% water. If we can’t keep replenishing the water we lose in sweat, urine and other bodily emanations, we risk dehydration, which makes our physical functions decline and – in extreme cases – collapse.

The human body is up to 60% water. If we can’t keep replenishing the water we lose in sweat, urine and other bodily emanations, we risk dehydration, which makes our physical functions decline and – in extreme cases – collapse. So whether your workers are deep underground, up a tree, or in the sky, you still need to make sure they have access to adequate drinking water.

Employers’ legal obligations to provide drinking water


Work health and safety regulations require the provision of clean, safe drinking water so far as is reasonably practicable. Employers must take relevant matters into account when deciding how to best ensure access to drinking water. ‘Relevant matters’ include the nature of the work and its hazards, the size, location and nature of the workplace, and the number and composition of the workforce.

The Code of Practice: Managing the work environment and facilities elaborates on this basic requirement, noting that clean drinking water should be free of charge, positioned where it can be easily accessed by workers, close to where hot or strenuous work is being undertaken, and separate from toilet or washing facilities to avoid contamination. It states that drinking water should be cool, that is, at or below 24 degrees Celsius, and that this can be achieved by refrigerating the water or providing non-contaminated ice, or shading water pipes and storage containers from the sun.

It adds that drinking water must be hygienically provided so that workers do not drink directly from a shared container. This may involve either a drinking fountain where the water is delivered in an upward jet, or by means of disposable or washable drinking containers.

The code notes that water supplied for certain industrial processes or for fire protection may not be suitable for drinking. Any such water supply points should be marked with signs warning that the water is unfit for drinking.

In Victoria, while the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 do not include an explicit requirement for the provision of drinking water, the Compliance code: Workplace amenities and work environment states that clean drinking water is required for all workplaces. While this code has not been updated to reflect 2017 regulation, this provision is unlikely to be omitted in any revised version.

The compliance code notes further that water should be supplied so that there is one drinking point for every 40 employees or part thereof, and situated within 30 metres of each employee or within reach of employees who cannot leave their work task. Drinking water needs to be clean, safe for consumption, cool and palatable.

In Western Australia, the Occupational Safety and Health Regulations 1996 require employers and main contractors at workplaces to ensure that a supply of clean, cool, drinking water is provided for workers, and that the water is readily accessible. The outlet must be in a place where the water supply is unlikely to be contaminated, and any water supply that is unfit for drinking must be marked with suitable signage.

Temporary, remote or mobile workplaces


The Code of Practice: Managing the work environment and facilities and the Victorian code also provide guidance for situations where workplaces are temporary, remote or mobile, so employers are unable to provide drinking points for employees. Employers of transport drivers, security personnel, park rangers and gardeners, forestry employees, sales representatives or mobile community health employees may be in this position. In these cases, employers need to ensure access to public drinking water facilities, bottled water or individual containers such as insulated flasks for workers to take water with them.

Rainwater tanks


Contrary to frequently-encountered beliefs, rainwater systems, particularly above-ground tanks, generally provide a safe supply of water, though the water may be contaminated by birds, small animals and debris collected on roofs. Contamination can be minimised by regular cleaning or guttering, keeping overhanging branches to a minimum, and installing leaf litter strainers at inlet pipes to tanks. First-flush diverters, which prevent the initial roof-cleaning wash of water (20–25 L) from entering tanks, are recommended. Alternatively, a detachable downpipe can be used to provide the same result.

More information on the quality of drinking water can be found in the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines endorsed by the National Health and Medical Research Council. 
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