If the chemistry is right: Safe Work Method Statements

Under work health and safety legislation, persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) have a “primary duty of care” to ensure (so far as is reasonably practicable) the health and safety of workers and others in the workplace.

What is “reasonably practicable” will involve a risk management approach where hazards or risks are identified, assessed and then controlled. A control measure for risks that cannot be eliminated may include implementing a safe work method statement (SWMS) for the performance of the work.

What is a SWMS?

A SWMS sets out the steps or different aspects involved in the performance of the activity, the risks or hazards associated with that activity, the safety control measures to be implemented; and the persons responsible for managing the safety risk.

A SWMS can be produced for any single task or for a work activity or project (which are comprised of the performance of a conglomerate of different tasks) for example, demolition work.

SWMS can and should approach each work activity methodically, that is from the preparation for doing the work through to the completion of the activity. PCBUs are to consult with workers and health and safety representatives to prepare SWMS. As work activities are performed in different workplaces, SWMS should also be site-specific and amended to suit the environment in the particular location where the activity will be performed.

All workers should be trained in the contents of the SWMS to ensure that work is performed safely and in accordance with the document. Similarly, SWMS should be regularly reviewed as new risks may arise or there may be new ways identified to minimise a risk.

It is also important that SWMS are checked to ensure that workers are complying with the SWMS. Recently, a Victorian building and construction company, Vand Builders Pty Ltd was fined $25,000 for breaching the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (Vic). A worker sustained significant and permanent injuries after he fell from a 2.1 metre high platform. In convicting the company, the Magistrates Court of Victoria held that while a SWMS was prepared, it had not been followed when the injury occurred. 

Why should you develop and implement SWMS?

SWMS provide a process by which PCBUs are required to consider work activities and assess the different hazards that they pose to workers and others. It is a useful training tool and should be used in the induction of new workers.

A SWMS assists PCBUs comply with the health and safety duties and demonstrate that safe systems of work are in place.

Most importantly, working in accordance with a SWMS will minimise the risk of injury to a worker in the workplace – fulfilling the purpose of the entire work health safety statutory regime.

Shane Koelmeyer is a leading workplace relations lawyer and Director at Workplace Law. Workplace Law is a specialist law firm providing employers with legal advice, training and representation in all aspects of workplace relations, employment-related matters and WH&S.

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