SWMS – the infectious safety weed

Australian occupational health and safety (OHS) professional, Paul Breslin, is continuing his research into the use and application of the Safe Work Method Statement (SWMS) in the construction industry.  His latest paper, recently published in the Journal of Health, Safety and Environment (subscription only) asks an important question:

“If administrative controls are one of the lowest levels of control measures under the hierarchy of control, why has the Safe Work Method Statement become a central element in ensuring safety in the Australian construction industry?”

Breslin’s article title summarises the frustration of many OHS professionals where safety relies on lower order controls of the

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Lack of progress on Safe Work Method Statements shows immaturity

On 27 October 2014 the Safety Institute of Australia, with the support of RMIT University conducted a seminar on safety in the construction industry.  As with the event last year the issue of Safe Work Method Statements (SWMS) dominated the conversation.  The same frustrations were expressed as last year – SWMS are too big and complex, they are demanded for tasks they are not legislatively required for, they are rarely read, they are rarely reviewed and they are written only in English.  What was missing was an indication of  who is (over)demanding SWMS and why.

The seminar contained one client representative experienced in major construction projects who said that he was not directly involved with SWMS as the contract demands only that work is undertaken safely with predetermined levels of risk and reward.  That level of safety may or may not involve the use of SWMS – SWMS were not prescribed.

He did not review SWMS unless there was a specific reason and most of the time there was not.  It could be argued that too much involvement by the client in how the project is to be completed implies a shared OHS responsibility with the client, changing the client/contractor relationship.

One construction industry representative said that they have been able to reduce the number of SWMS to around twenty types for each of the active construction projects.  This has been achieved by limiting the SWMS to the 19 high risk tasks identified in safety legislation.  It was significant that this perspective came from the top-level of construction companies, the Tier Ones.

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Some plain talking on SWMS

In Sydney this afternoon a workplace safety trade show held a fascinating (and free) panel discussion on safety in construction. The topic of Safe Work Method Statements (SWMS) was raised, as expected, but the comments were sound – SWMS are only required for specific high-risk activities so make them simple enough to satisfy legislative requirements…

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