Safe work method statements

by 27 Apr 2010

How important are Safe Work Method Statements in managing risk in the workplace, and what should HR professionals know about them?

We have all heard the phrase “recipe for disaster”, but what would the opposite recipe be? As a safety professional when was the last time you wrote a recipe? A Safe Work Method Statement (SWMS) is exactly that – a recipe describing how to perform a specific task or job.

What is a safe work method statement?

A SWMS is developed by the employer for their employees for work that they are performing. It details how specific risks in the workplace will be managed. SWMS, or safe work recipes, are an important part of any occupational health and safety system. When we follow a recipe we follow a system. Whether it’s baking a cake or putting up a ladder, there is always a right way and wrong way. However, the implications of not following our “putting up a ladder” recipe can have serious, even fatal, consequences.

The SWMS is developed by conducting a Job Safety Analysis (JSA). The JSA analyses the components of each task, and identifies the hazards and control measures for each hazard identified, for each component of the task. When developing the JSA care must be taken not to put at risk the person doing the job. It is always a good idea to do a desktop JSA, before refining the procedure by watching someone actually doing the task. Ask yourself; what is being done, what are the hazards, and how can we perform this task in a manner that minimises the risk? Always refer to the manufacturers operating guidelines, as well as any relevant industry bodies and Australian Standards. The SWMS is designed to be developed only after a full risk assessment has been completed and all reasonable risk control measures put into place.

This information is then used to develop the SWMS which employers use to perform the task. Once completed, it would be expected that all personnel performing that specific task would comply with the SWMS. The SWMS is an effective method of communicating the agreed work practices to all staff within a workgroup. As it is a formal document, staff should be using it as a resource, and following the procedures outlined in the document.

Recipe for safety

Like a recipe the SWMS clearly outlines the ingredients required. This may include equipment, licenses, the number of workers, skills and qualifications. The SWMS should be as detailed as necessary to describe the activity being carried out, and the method used to control the risk. Similarly we should always consult those involved with the activity, and those who would be required to follow the SWMS. You should also consult internal and external experts if required.

Training is essential

Staff using a SWMS should be trained in its use and supervised the first time they use it. Training documents should be kept so that we can demonstrate that training was conducted and that the employees demonstrated an understanding of the SWMS. By following the SWMS, we ensure that every single time the task is performed it is performed the same way, the safe way. It is also best practice to randomly audit staff at appropriate intervals, to ensure ongoing compliance with the SWMS. Any non compliance observed should be documented, and corrective or disciplinary action considered.

We cannot assume that a single safe work method statement is going to be effective for every single similar situation in the workplace. Hazards that appear on one worksite may not exist on another site. . As part of our Safe Work Method Statement, we should therefore require employees to perform a Job Safety Analysis prior to commencing work. The pre work JSA in this situation looks at the variables that may exist on different sites. Where are the power lines? What is the ground surface made of? Are there pedestrian or traffic hazards.

We adjust our SWMS to take into account these changing variables. For example if there are pedestrians about we might need to take additional steps to ensure their safety, and to keep them from walking under the ladder. Similarly if we have parked under power lines, we might need to reposition our vehicle to avoid coming into contact with powerlines when we remove our ladder, or alternatively our work may require us to select a specific type of ladder – for example fibreglass – for the task at hand. Be careful downloading generic Safe Work Method statements from the internet – Because SWMS need to be specific, generic documents may not meet your legal requirements for providing a safe system of work in every situation.

For example we might need to have separate safe work method statement for different types of ladders, or different tasks. It is possible to put up a ladder with one person, however there are limitations on the size of the ladder and location where this task can be performed safely. So now we have two separate ‘putting up a ladder recipes’ – one for a single person and one for two people.

Like the warning on our cake recipe telling us that the oven may be hot, we too have a warning on or SWMS, telling us not to overload the ladder – 1 ladder, 1 person. These warnings form part of the safe work method statement, and are also included in the training provided to relevant employees.

The occupational health and safety act requires employers to provide a safe workplace for their employees. The Safe Work Method Statement is simply one way of complying with this requirement. A well constructed and effective document will clearly illustrate that you have taken the time to identify the hazards, assess the risks, and implement effective control measures.

- Brad Nathan, Easy HR, bradn@easyhr.com.au