3 min read

Safe work method statements: What you need to know

By Michael Selinger

[Ed Note: Construction businesses operating under the harmonised safety laws will be familiar with the regulations which govern construction work. In particular, the construction regulations require that a safe work method statement (SWMS) be prepared for every high-risk construction work activity. High-risk construction work includes, for example, any construction work that:

  • is on or near energised electrical installations; or
  • involves a risk of a person falling more than 2 metres.

There are 15 or so other areas set out in WHS Regulation 291. But what exactly is the function of an SWMS under the WHS legislation? And should you only use one if you operate in the construction industry? What should businesses that are not in the construction industry use instead? If you are in the construction industry and you are involved in high-risk construction work, who is responsible for the creation and implementation of SWMSs in your workplace? Read on to find answers to all these questions from our editor in chief Michael Selinger…]

SWMSs under the WHS Act: Part 1

The practical day-to-day operation of work throughout Australia has the legacy of the use of a document called a safe work method statement (SWMS), whether for construction work or not.

SWMSs are often used for work not involving construction work because of their ability to be a generic one-size-fits-all document. Under the WHS Act however, an SWMS is only required to be used for high-risk construction work.

What is an SWMS?

An SWMS is a document that sets out the high-risk work that will be performed along with relevant controls, codes or legislation. The SWMS demonstrates that any high-risk hazards that may affect the work being undertaken have been identified and there are control measures in place to reduce or remove the risk.

An SWMS provides supervisors, workers and other persons at the workplace with information about the established risk control measures that must be implemented in relation to the high-risk work to be carried out.

How is an SWMS different to a safe operating procedure?

An SWMS is different to other documents prepared that focus on specific tasks or processes, such as safe operating procedures, because it is not a procedure that needs step-by-step instructions to be followed. Rather, an SWMS is a statement of the risk control measures identified for the specific high-risk work task.

Safe operating procedures on the other hand, are written documents that provide specific instructions on how to safely perform a task or activity in the workplace.

Who is responsible for preparing a safe work method statement?

Under the WHS Act, the obligation to prepare an SWMS is now only a requirement if you are involved in high-risk construction work. The PCBU involved in carrying out the high-risk construction must ensure that an SWMS is prepared.

Commonly, this obligation is on both a subcontractor and any principal contractor on a construction site. Because of that fact, a subcontractor and a principal contractor must coordinate with each other to determine who is in the best position to create the SWMS.

What is the role of the principal contractor?

If you have a business that trades as a principal contractor or is a business that commissions or initiates construction work, then your role is to put in place arrangements for ensuring that the high-risk construction work is performed safely in accordance with the SWMS.

Practically speaking, this is done by monitoring the implementation of the SWMS ‘on the ground’.

If you operate such a business, you should first ensure that you take reasonable steps to obtain an SWMS from any contractor working for you before work is commenced. This requirement is part of your obligation to have arrangements in place for the consultation, cooperation and coordination of work activities. If there is no SWMS, you need to make arrangements for an SWMS to be created by the contractor – which you will then review and monitor its implementation.

For construction work, the WHS regulations require that your WHS management plan includes specific arrangements for collecting, assessing, monitoring and review of SWMS.

Friday’s Health & Safety Bulletin will discuss whether SWMSs should be used for work outside the construction industry – so have a look for that at the end of the week.

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