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Using Safe Work Method Statements as a Leadership Tool

Using Safe Work Method Statements as a Leadership Tool

Leadership plays a crucial role in ensuring the safety and well-being of workers, site visitors and others. This is especially true of construction sites where effective leadership is the bedrock of site safety management. The Safe Work Method Statement (SWMS) is an often overlooked leadership resource, so we decided to invest this month in sharing some simple but powerful SWMS leadership practices. You'll find the suggestions both helpful and straightforward to implement.

A great companion to this article is our August 2021 article, "Toolbox Talks and How to Engage a Tool." We'll provide this link again toward the end of this article.

Specifically, we will take a look at:

  1. Safe Work Method Statement basics (from a leadership perspective),
  2. The SWMS as a leadership resource,
  3. The Leadership Gold within Safe Work Method Statements, and
  4. Implementing SWMS Leadership Strategies.

Safe Work Method Statement Basics (from a Leadership Perspective)

If you're like most of our clients, you're in the construction industry. This means you deal with potentially life-ending or life-altering risks every day. Every advantage gained is valuable, so as we consider the SWMS as a leadership tool, remember that the well-being of workers and the successful completion of projects can turn on a pinhead. One moment, one error, can bring it all undone. That is the margin of error in this domain of workplace safety.

If you're confident about your SWMS understanding, feel free to skip to the next heading, but if you think you might benefit, here's a quick review of the foundational 'must know' facts.

  • A Safe Work Method Statement is a document that outlines the potential hazards,  control measures, step-by-step procedures and precautions for performing high-risk tasks (and some others) on a construction site. 
  • There are ‘others’ because a Principal Contractor can request and use them for tasks that are medium or even low risk.
  • They serve as a guide by providing the information needed to execute duties safely and efficiently.
  • They are comprehensive. They pack a wealth of important information in a very compact form. 
  • They typically include a description of the task, identified hazards, control measures, and emergency procedures.
  • Fundamentally, they are a communication and compliance tool, helping workers fulfil and document required processes.

Risk Assessment and the SWMS Response

They involve specific steps, including:

  • Identifying hazards by conducting a risk assessment and considering workplace conditions and site-specific hazards.
  • Implementing control measures by finding ways to eliminate or minimise risks. Control measures include engineering controls, administrative controls and personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • Consulting and collaborating with workers, health and safety representatives, and other duty holders. Collaboration ensures the SWMS accurately represents the situation and the collective contributions of the team.
  • Regularly reviewing the SWMS so it remains effective and up to date.

If you'd like more detailed information about safe work method statements, we've addressed their use in previous blogs. Follow the link to learn more about SWMS use in plumbing, the danger of becoming casual when using them, when they are and are not required, design and use essentials, the impact of ISO 45001, what to look for when purchasing, safe work method statement currency - and more. 

It's a profoundly important topic!

The SWMS as a Leadership Resource.

With the basics reviewed, let's move into the leadership practicals.

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you'll know I appreciate a good dad joke. In this article, however, I struggled to find an opportunity - until I looked father (Oh dear). Similarly, you might think it's a stretch to view a SWMS as a leadership resource, but the potential is there. Honestly, it is! 

The secret is in perception and application.

When you look for it, you'll see the opportunity to:

  • Empower safety, and encourage others to empower it - that's leadership.
  • Develop leaders who implement SWMS resources intelligently - that's leadership.
  • Develop worker competence across a spectrum of WHS skills - that's leadership too.
  • Demonstrate a commitment to safety and stir it in others - that's definitely leadership
  • Enculture a proactive approach to risk management - which is a leadership essential.
  • Train people to see beyond the obvious - which requires advanced leadership in action.

A SWMS helps you lead by helping you move beyond just managing people and resources. Instead, you can take and demonstrate responsibility for the team's well-being, which, in turn, creates a work environment that prioritises safety and the development of your team. 

By utilising your SWMS as a leadership tool, you can:

  1. Demonstrate your commitment to safety, 
  2. Set clear expectations for team members, and 
  3. Empower them to do the same.

Let's investigate what that might look like.

The Leadership Gold within Safe Work Method Statements.

You may have heard the American idiom, "There's gold in them thar hills." It is a phrase designed to make people believe in what they cannot see and to stick around and make an effort. Similarly, there's gold in 'them thar' safe work method statements. Here's why.

When used as a leadership tool, they can:

  1. Raise safety awareness.
  2. Create reinforcement opportunities.
  3. Provide clarity.
  4. Keep the main thing in focus.
  5. Enable supervisors to demonstrate individual care.
  6. Encourage ownership.
  7. Encourage collaboration.
  8. Validate supervision and monitoring.
  9. Are a vehicle for training.

Can you see the gold? Let's unpack the value further.

1 / Using Safe Work Method Statements to Raise Safety Awareness

By providing comprehensive training to all your workers - especially those involved in high-risk construction work, you model a belief in the importance of dedicated and ongoing professional development. In the same way, when you take the time to train your workers in the use of the SWMS, ensure they understand its content, and also check they are familiar with the control measures and procedures, you model the same diligence and care that you want them to exercise. 

2 / Creating Reinforcement Opportunities

Whether your talks involve safe work method statements or not, every toolbox talk should be viewed as an opportunity. Sure, you'll have to get yourself up for them occasionally (or maybe even every time), but as a gathering of bodies and minds, they are golden moments. Rarely will you find a time when an audience can be drawn into both the topics of the moment and the more significant themes of safe work practices.

Every discussion provides an opportunity for workers to actively participate in the safety process, contribute their expertise, get off their 'rusty dusty' and 'give a rats'.

When you regularly communicate the importance of SWMS, and your toolbox talks reinforce safety messages, address concerns and answer questions, people cannot miss the message that "safety matters!" 

3 / Providing Clarity

Due to the structured and precise nature of a SWMS document, they lend themself to precise communication. They allow leaders to communicate safety expectations, item by item and detail by detail. 

4 / Keeping the Main Thing in Focus

Part of the leadership and communication challenge is to hit all the key points without going too far into the weeds. We do this by laying out clear steps and keeping workers focused on the main thing. Thankfully we have a tool that helps with this!

A well-prepared SWMS communicates concisely, clearly and accurately; it assesses potential dangers, provides appropriate detail and frames this within a broad base understanding of the threats. 

Also, the category threats of high-risk construction are worth knowing and reinforcing, and the SWMS helps here also. In short, high-risk activities can potentially cause death, serious harm or illness for workers and other people nearby in the environment. More specifically, the threats include:

  • Activities where someone could fall more than two metres, 
  • Operations involving energised electrical systems or services, and 
  • Handling chemical fuel and refrigerant pipes. 

Understanding what constitutes a high-risk construction task enables you to identify and implement suitable control measures. If you’re uncertain about those tasks, we clarified the activities and regulations in our article called, “It Seems Like You Need an SWMS Template for Everything - But You Don’t!”

5 / Demonstrating Individual Care

Perhaps the most critical message workers need to hear is that THEIR personal safety matters. 

When workers know they are valued and protected, something changes inside. When leaders demonstrate that each worker's well-being is of utmost importance, morale improves, and workers might start looking at and valuing each other in a new light. 

Safety can become contagious.

6 / Encouraging Ownership

A well-led and implemented safe work method statement can also empower team members to make informed decisions and take ownership of the safety processes. By clearly outlining the steps and precautions to be taken, supervisors can instil ownership and accountability among workers, ensure they actively follow safety procedures and lead them to increased process and document compliance. 

7 / Facilitating Collaboration

Another leadership aspect of SWMS use is their ability to foster collaboration and communication among team members. When well-designed SWMS are in place and utilised well, leaders can ensure everyone is on the same page regarding safety procedures. But when used as a leadership tool, they also facilitate teamwork, communication and collaboration. They also increase the effectiveness of risk management by demonstrating your commitment to safety and modelling what it looks like. 

But workers may need encouragement to cross the gulf between observer and participant. Consider using questions to draw them in; this fosters collaboration and promotes a culture of team-driven proactive risk management.

As indicated, our August 2021 article, 'Toolbox Talks and How to Engage a Tool,' might also help here. 

Ultimately, you want a safer workplace where workers are happier to be present, less likely to slack off, and more likely to apply themselves well when on-site. SWMS leadership can help you achieve that.

This becomes especially invaluable because construction projects involve multiple trades and workers from various backgrounds. Good communications and collaboration are therefore essential. Leaders create a sense of inclusiveness by involving workers in developing and implementing safe work method statements and seeking their feedback. This also strengthens the team's bond, which promotes a culture of looking out for each other's safety.

8 / Validating Supervision and Monitoring

Workers understand that monitoring, implementing SWMS and providing ongoing supervision is a work health and safety requirement. As a result, when used cleverly, your safe work method statement can not only ensure compliance with the documented control measures, but can also validate your routine and unscheduled check. These regular inspections and audits can also identify areas for improvement and address any non-compliance promptly.

9 / Using them as a Vehicle for Training

SWMS serve as a valuable training tool. This is true for experienced workers, new workers, and those unfamiliar with specific tasks. Since construction sites often have a mix of experienced and inexperienced workers, regular and repeated training is crucial to ensure everyone understands the risks and control measures associated with their tasks. 

By incorporating SWMS as a training process, leaders can:

  • Convey necessary safety information in a structured and accessible manner. 
  • Reinforces the importance of safety as a core value, and 
  • Remind everyone that no one is so experienced that a refresher or reminder is inappropriate. 

10 / Promoting Proactive Attitudes  

One of the key advantages of using SWMS as a leadership tool is that it promotes proactive risk management. Rather than merely reacting to accidents and incidents, SWMS enable leaders (and those who follow them) to identify potential hazards before they become a problem. 

It's easy to understate how significant this is, but we shouldn't. Reactive safety is like Monday's experts discussing the weekend match. It's not without value, but it is never a standard.

Proactive safety management is the optimal approach, and control measures and the mitigation of risks depend on a proactive approach. With proactivity you can prevent accidents, save lives, reduce the likelihood of injuries, and minimise disruptions to project timelines. 

If you are a great safety leader, you will foster a culture where everyone is encouraged to actively participate in identifying and addressing risks. 

Implementing SWMS Leadership Strategies.

It's been said that opportunity only knocks once, but temptation leans on the doorbell. If you make leading through SWMS into a 'doorbell leaner', you'll stay switched on to the opportunities they present.

To 'maintain the lean' (on the doorbell), develop your safe work method statements as comprehensive and tailored documents, and then use them strategically and deliberately. 

Remember, you can use them to raise safety awareness, create reinforcement opportunities, provide clarity, direct and maintain worker focus, and demonstrate your care for individual workers. Your team can also benefit through increased ownership of the control measures and procedures, greater collaboration, increased understanding of supervision and monitoring, the need for training, reviews and more proactive attitudes.

It bears repeating: The key to leading with SWMS documents is designing and completing them well, as well as using them strategically and deliberately.

Thankfully, we've done most of the hard work for you, we've designed a format that works, and we've provided as much of the information that it's conceivable to pre-install - and for the work that remains, we've provided instructions, and we're just a phone call away if you need help.

You can access these resources by viewing the following:

Also, as we go to print with this article, 

Summing Up

Prioritising safety and complying with safe working method statements is not only a legal and moral obligation, but it is also an opportunity to lead your workers into a safer and more productive and satisfied space

(And as promised, here's the link again for the "Toolbox Talks and How to Engage a Tool" article.) 

A friend of mine works in Information Technology. He says that when everything works fine, people say, "What the hell are we paying you for?" and they say exactly the same when something breaks. Your life as a safety-minded business owner, Safety Officer or Supervisor might feel the same: the sky falls on you when things go wrong, and when you're doing your job well, you and others can begin to question your importance and role. 

Please don't buy into it! Your leadership is essential, and we hope this month's article helps you do just that. 

Every time your 'days since the last incident' sign hits a new high, that's a notch on your belt. Safety only happens with leadership. If you want help with that, we're here for you, and whether it's our Safe Work Method Statements or a complete Safety Management System, a call to 1800 304 336 will bring us quickly by your side. We've been doing this for a long time, and it's all we do!
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