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Does Your SWMS Defy Saturation?

Posted by Andrew Watters on

Safe Work Method Statements (SWMS) can seem like a worn-out topic, but I want to challenge you, without apology, to take a fresh look at how you use them. I'm even going to lay down a challenge that may result in fewer sales. Of course, I want your business, but that's a secondary goal today. My first goal is to rethink how we use the SWMS resource and ask you to reconsider how you use them. 

We will:

  • Remember Joel Exner, a 16-year-old who should have been 35 this year.
  • Re-appreciate the revolution that was the Safe Work Method Statement.
  • Look at the overuse and saturation of this critical risk management tool.
  • Explain how our SWMS templates counter this.

Remembering Joel

On 15 October 2003, I was on a worksite in Eastern Creek, Sydney. To be exact, I was in the car park of Australia's Wonderland. A construction boom was on, and young Joel Exner was working nearby that day. I didn't know him, but I would soon learn his name. He was:

  • Only 16 years old. 
  • On the third day of his roof plumbing apprenticeship, 
  • NOT under the supervision of his sub-contracting employer, 
  • NOT wearing a harness while working on a roof, and
  • Had NOT been advised to wear one. 

You can probably guess (or perhaps even remember) the rest of the story. Young Joel fell 12 metres through the roof of a storage shed. He died of internal injuries soon after. 

My memories of that day are both painful and vivid. Though I didn't see him fall, I witnessed the chaos in the minutes afterwards, and no one was untouched by the tragedy and injustices of that day. The blame-shifting, politics, accusations, and hostile tensions that followed were also full-on. The outrage that followed was understandable. An estimated 10,000 people marched through the Sydney CBD in protest just 12 days later, which led to a NSW Parliamentary Inquiry that was the beginning of the Industrial Manslaughter charges we see today.

Joel's death was a landmark day for the construction industry and a milestone in my professional development. Joel isn't why I got into work health and safety, but he opened my eyes in a whole new way, and I've never forgotten him. 

When soldiers sign up, they know their job involves the real risk of work-related death. Roof plumbers don't. 

SWMS is a Very Good Four-Letter ‘Word’

Did young Joel have a SWMS on that tragic day in 2003? The answer is "No". He might have had a Job Safety Analysis (JSA) or Safe Operating Procedure (SOP) to follow, but Safe Working Method Statements did not exist back then. 

It can be reasonably argued that Joel's death created a wave of priority shifting, soul searching and legal change. The introduction of the Regulation 291 High Risk Category in the 2011 Work Health and Safety Regulations is a case in point, as is the requirement for Safe Work Method Statements (SWMS) for those activities. 

That standard rapidly became the norm in all jurisdictions. Since then, a SWMS has been required when each of the identified 19 high-risk construction work activities are carried out.  

The 'SWMS' became a new and very good four-letter ‘word’. 

Why Your SWMS Should Command Respect

By definition, and within the legislative framework, if a SWMS exists for a task, then that task IS a high-risk task. Whether a supervisor or worker realises it or not, and whether they agree with the assessment or not, the SWMS says, "Careful! Slow down, plan, think and follow these EXACT steps." 

That warning isn't like a helicopter mum's caution to an infant running up the footpath; it's the well-informed command of a seasoned, informed, and reality-hardened expert. As adults, and even 16-year-old children, step into legitimately dangerous spaces, this procedural tool should command respect. It should have the same effect a Sergeant-Major has on a young soldier - it should inspire respect and obedience.

But we've lost that. 

Where'd the Respect Go? 

Tragedies like Joel's caused a revolution in standards and procedures. The construction industry is now more regulated, more enforced and more litigious. As a result of, and because of their effectiveness, Safe Work Method Statements have become a primary control tool for a PCBU seeking to fulfil due diligence and manage risks. But there's a problem here: I believe they've become an overused 'go-to', and as a result, they are losing their respect.

This time last year, my blog about what you need a SWMS for was an attempt at clarity on this issue. This time, I'm raising a concern.  

Sure, the ever-increasing demand for SWMS templates is good for my business. I also recognise that they help companies demonstrate due diligence and are a comprehensive and effective tool - but it saddens me that more and more PCBUs are demanding them for more and more tasks. 

It saddens and frustrates me because their overuse is watering down the significance and effectiveness of the tool. In my view, an inappropriate SWMS saturation of the worksite has taken a document that once commanded attention and turned it into a mundane 'ho-hum' routine.   

This grieves me because workers, especially young and inexperienced workers like Joel, often need a COMMANDING INTERRUPTION to possibly save their lives.

That's the challenge I respectfully offer: Have you overdone it? Have Safe Work Method Statements lost their gravitas and effect in your workspace? 

Our SWMS Templates are Designed to Counter Saturation

There's only so much we can do, of course, but we design our SWMS templates to:

  1. Communicate what is essential without disregarding the additional.
  2. Comply with the regulations and go further where appropriate.
  3. Command attention and respect, saying to workers like Joel, "Careful! Slow down, plan, think and follow these EXACT steps." 

Of course, there's only so much we can do; worksite environment, leadership and situation-specifics are in your hands - but we're here to help. We pack as much punch as we can and deliver with as much finesse as we can. We also tap into relevant and life-saving expertise wherever we find it. You only need to add the specifics.

You can see our complete list of SWMS documents here and our industry-specific packs here. I'll leave it at that for the sales part of this blog.

Returning to the Point

Joel Exner would have benefitted from both having AND following a Working at Height SWMS. If he had, he might be turning 35 this year, going home today, perhaps from his Roofing business, and perhaps to a wife and children.

If you'd like assistance with your SWMS needs, we're here for you. I also challenge PCBUs to:

  1. Not saturate the workplace with unnecessary SWMSs.
  2. Use them deliberately and precisely wherever they should be used. 
  3. Remember we do this so that all our workers get to go home.

Call us on 1800 304 336 to ask a question, run your needs and concerns by us, or say 'Hi' as an initial get to know us. We're a small company that resisted a takeover invitation for a reason: you need an expert to answer your call, and we like being that expert. We have no sales reps, just industry experts with hands-on experience - because what we do matters! As I said earlier, I have never forgotten Joel or that day in Eastern Creek; frankly, it's better that I don't.


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