Safe operating procedures, sometimes known as safe work procedures and safe work method statements, are written documents that provide no-nonsense, step-by-step instructions on how to safely perform a task or activity in the workplace.

A safe operating procedure is not something you can grab ‘off-the-shelf’, like a generic document. Each safe operating procedure should be specific to your workplace and task your workers perform.

Developing safe operating procedures is a critical component of a business owner’s responsibility to provide a systematic and organised approach to workplace safety. Safe operating procedures can also be used to show regulators, if required, that you have taken steps to control risks associated with each critical task in your operations.

A safe operating procedure should not be a generic document. It should be specific to your workplace and the tasks your workers perform.

For example, a picker working in a warehouse is at risk of being struck by mobile plant, e.g. a forklift; and suffering a manual handling injury. An appropriate safe operating procedure should include the following steps:

  1. Look out for mobile plant before entering the factory floor.
  2. Approach the picking site by a designated walkway.
  3. Only pick two items at a time.
  4. Move the items to the packaging section of the warehouse by placing them on a pallet.

When is a safe operating procedure required?

A safe operating procedure should be used for tasks in your workplace that:

  • are undertaken on a regular basis; and
  • create a health and safety risk.

A different safe operating procedure (SOP) should be developed in relation to each item of plant in your workplace and each task your workers perform, even if there are only small differences between them.

Safe operating proceduress are required in certain industries, such as the construction industry, where they are known as safe work method statements, and must be prepared for all high-risk construction work as defined under the Work Health and Safety (WHS) Regulations.

There are many benefits in developing effective safe operating systems, such as:

  • reducing the risk of illness and injury in the workplace;
  • complying with your general duty to protect workers and others in the workplace;
  • can be used in court as evidence of taking reasonable steps to reduce health and safety risks;
  • increasing your workers’ awareness of health and safety risks;
  • demonstrating your business’s commitment to improving safety in the workplace;
  • training workers in the steps required to perform their tasks safely; and
  • improving communication between workers, their supervisors and managers.

Leave it to the experts

It’s important that safe operating procedures for particular tasks are prepared and written by an assessor. An assessor can be anyone in the workplace who is experienced and competent at performing that type of work. If the work is particularly complex or involves specialised knowledge, the SOP should be written by, or with the assistance of, a technical expert. Important: Under health and safety legislation, the assessor has an obligation to consult with affected workers.

When developing an SOP, the assessor should review the incident history (including near misses, i.e. unplanned events that did not result in injury or illness, but had the potential to do so) in relation to the task and conduct a preliminary job review, i.e. a review to see who actually performs the tasks in the workplace.

Don’t ‘set and forget’

Just like all important business documents, safe operating procedures should be properly controlled and maintained.

A controlled document must contain certain information, including but not limited to, the name of the document, the name of the assessor, the date of the issue and the date of the next review of the document.

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