When is a SWMS Not a SWMS?


When is a SWMS Not a SWMS?


We hear about safe work method statements (SWMS) often these days, and many people wonder where this terminology came from, as the term didn’t seem to exist 10 years ago. Traditionally, good practice has required a (safe) work procedure for all routine tasks, and a job safety analysis (JSA) for ad-hoc tasks e.g. maintenance and repairs.

Recent workplace safety regulations have introduced the terminology and requirement for a safe work method statement (SWMS) for “high risk” construction work.

Whilst there is no regulation prescribing a SWMS for “other” work, the general duty of care in each jurisdiction requires, in part, that managers ensure a “safe system of work”. This duty is usually satisfied, in part, with documentation of a safe work instruction (by any name).

High Risk Construction Work

High risk construction work is defined in the safety regulations as any construction work involving:

  • Fall risk greater than 2m (Qld > 3m)
  • Excavation > 1.5m deep
  • Work near energised electrical installations
  • Adjacent to traffic ways
  • Near chemical or fuel lines
  • Disturbance of asbestos
  • Work on towers
  • Demolition of load bearing structuralelements.

What Must a SWMS Contain?

Most jurisdictions have not prescribed in the law what a SWMS should contain, and none have prescribed the format or appearance of a SWMS, so it is not surprising that there are so many opinions on the content and appearance. These are purely opinions, not fact. However, there is guidance and samples in codes of practice e.g. model code for construction work.

Prescribed Requirements for SWMS

The harmonised WHS laws do not prescribe the content, but do require a SWMS for high risk construction work.

The Victorian OHS Regulations prescribe the requirements for a SWMS as:

  • TITLE of task
  • HAZARDS associated with the task
  • CONTROLS for the hazards.

The WA OSH Regulations also require a SWMS to include (in addition to above):

  • EQUIPMENT to be used

What Do You Do if PC Places Demands on SWMS?

Some Principal Contractors (PCs) have interpreted their legal obligations as requiring them to approve all SWMS, and specify content and even format of SWMS.

As previously mentioned, there are no legislated requirements for the format and style of a SWMS,so any requirements imposed by PCs in this regard are exceeding the legal requirements and will be commercially imposed if part of the contract.

Progressive sub-contractors are increasingly requiring PCs who impose unnecessary or confusing changes to their SWMS, to sign-off and take full responsibility for them, and in some cases to take control/supervision of the activity.

Legal opinion now highlights the dangers of PCs exceeding their authority in regard to SWMS. Recent statements by a senior OHS lawyer in Melbourne included two important warnings for PCs:

  • If your procedures go above the law you will be held accountable for the adequacy e.g. if you do something – do it well, or not at all.
  • Just because you can step in (e.g. by exercising commercial control), doesn’t mean you have to.

If you are interested in a FACT SHEET on the legal requirements by state for SWMS (including a sample SWMS template), call or email for a copy.

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