How to Write Safety Procedures

Puppet, studying repair manualLots of discussion about these currently on OHS Forums, my thoughts are that we should only have one set of procedures that include any safety, not a work instruction and say a SWMS. Procedures MUST be written by or with the people doing the job and regularly reviewed – no better training!! I have been guilty, on many occasions, of writing “war and peace” and nailing it to a notice board –  it gave me a warm fuzzy feeling that I did my job but it was of absolutely no use to anyone else!

How to Write Safety Procedures

by the late George Robotham –

Safe working procedures are the central plank of many organisations approach to safety, despite the fact they are notoriously unreliable without training, follow up and supervision.

I do not know about you but when I get a new chainsaw, mower or car the last thing I do is refer to the instruction manual, I want to try it out! Sometimes I think we are too optimistic with our expectations for people to follow safe working procedures.

One argument I have heard is we do not need specific safe working procedures, instead we need procedures to do the job efficiently, which includes safety.

One organisation I was associated with had an incident where an employee was nearly killed. After an audit the government regulator gave the organisation 6 months to make a quantum improvement in their work procedures. The regulator said they would shut the operation down altogether if big improvements were not made. When approached for advice I proposed all department members be trained in a 4 hour practical course on job safety analysis and we form teams to use job safety analysis to develop safe working procedures.

The procedures were subsequently developed and I got the job of reviewing them with the frontline staff that developed them. As well as developing some excellent procedures it put a much needed focus on safety and boosted management credibility with the workforce. The regulator was pleased.

Safe working procedures must be simple and succinct, aim for 2 pages at the most for simple tasks, use pictures, diagrams, flow-charts etc. The debate rages about how much detail to put in safe working procedures, I guess it is a balance between having the necessary detail and not having so much information that they will never be read or followed.

At one organisation the corporate safety people developed a S.W.P. for a particular task, there were good reasons for this. I was given the job of introducing it to the workers. There were 6 pages of complicated, close text and I, with a reasonable grasp of the English language, unlike some of the workers, simply could not understand it. Somehow I could not see the workers reading the document by the light of their torch or truck headlights in the middle of the night in order to carry out the task.

The corporate safety people were ropeable when I said I was not going to introduce it to the workers and it needed to be revised, they refused to revise it. Apparently I was a trouble maker. I gave the job of revising it to one of my crews.

2 pages with simple short steps and a diagram and the blokes were happy to use it because it made sense through their involvement. I had my manager on side and he forced the adoption of what our blokes developed through the whole organisation. Naturally I was not popular with the corporate safety people. The manager got the quality bloke to issue a non-conformance report on the original procedure through the quality system, that created a bit of excitement.

With another company I ran a J.S.A. train the trainer course for the field safety personnel who trained the frontline workers to develop the safe working procedures and everything went pretty smoothly. At one location they decided to employ a contract fitter to develop the procedures in the mechanical workshop. This was done with little involvement of the workforce. The mechanical superintendent proudly showed me the manual that had been developed.

In a subsequent audit it became obvious the workers knew little about the existence of the procedures and they did not reflect their work practices.

It is remarkably stupid not to involve the workforce in the development of procedures.

I have always had difficulty drawing the line between what you put into a S.W.P. and what you rely on the competency of the worker for. I would appreciate your advice on this. One thing I do know is if you give an experienced tradesman a safe working procedure for a job he has done successfully many times before, you should not be surprised if he does not follow the procedure exactly. Experienced people are likely to tell you where to stick procedures for simple tasks but they can be very handy for training apprentices and trainees.

You have to consider what motivation there is for the workers in using safe working procedures. What Is In It For Me is a question that has to be answered, extra work is often the perception of the worker. Human beings generally prefer to do things in the least time, least effort way, it is no wonder safe working procedures are sometimes not followed!

The concerns I have with placing too much emphasis on following procedures are you are overly simplifying the task and encouraging the worker not to think about the job.

You may be smarter than me and have all the answers to this topic, I make no pretence I have all the answers.



Wayne Harris recently published a great article on how to write safety procedures on his blog. HOW TO WRITE SAFETY PROCEDURES


As safety practitioners we need to understand that procedures can be the nemesis of any occupational health and safety (OHS) management system.  Getting it wrong can be the difference between success and failure in safety compliance.

Sometimes procedures are created too rigid and bureaucratic, and other times they’re non-specific and ineffectual. The point is no one wants to be under the burden of unnecessary or unusable procedures. What is needed is the right balance of simple instructions that are easy to read and comprehend.

Developing your Safety Procedures

Procedures should communicate to employees what they need to know to do their job safely. Here are 5 simple steps to follow:

  1. Justification – Ensure there is a genuine reason for writing a procedure.

  2. Identify User – Who will be the using the procedures and  the task involved.

  3. Procedure Format – Use a simple and free-flowing method.

  4. Writing Style – Make sure you write for the intended user.

  5. Document Control

George Robotham

George Robotham

George was a Legend in the Safety World who passed away in Sept 2013 but left us with a great legacy
George Robotham
I have worked in OHS for most of my working life, many years in the mining industry including over 10 years in a corporate OHS role with BHP. Since leaving the mining industry I have worked in a variety of safety roles with a variety of employers, large & small, in a variety of industries. I was associated with my first workplace fatality at age 21, the girl involved was young, intelligent, vivacious and friendly. Such a waste! I was the first on the scene and tried to comfort her and tend to her injuries. She said to me “George, please do not let me die” We put her on the aerial ambulance to Rockhampton base hospital where she died the next day. I do not mind telling you that knocked me around for awhile. Since then I have helped my employers cope with the aftermath of 12 fatalities and 2 other life-altering events. The section "Why do Occupational Health & Safety" provides further detail but in summary, poor safety is simply very expensive and also has a massive humanitarian cost. My qualifications include a certificate I.V. in Workplace Training and Assessment, a Diploma in Frontline Management, a Diploma in Training & Assessment Systems, a Bachelor of Education (Adult & Workplace Education) , a Grad. Cert. in Management of Organisational Change and a Graduate Diploma in Occupational Hazard Management. I am currently studying towards a Masters in Business Leadership. Up until recently I had been a Chartered Fellow of the Safety Institute of Australia for 10 years and a member for about 30 years. My interest is in non-traditional methods of driving organisational change in OHS and I have what I believe is a healthy dis-respect for many common approaches to OHS Management and OHS Training. I hold what I believe is a well-founded perception that many of the things safety people and management do in safety are “displacement activities” (Displacement activities are things we do, things we put a lot of energy into, but which when we examine them closely there is no valid reason for doing them). My managerial and leadership roles in OHS have exposed me to a range of management techniques that are relevant to Business Improvement. In particular I am a strong supporter of continuous improvement and quality management approaches to business. I believe leadership is the often forgotten key to excellence in most aspects of life. I hold the Australian Defence Medal and am a J.P.(Qualified). I have many fond memories of my time playing Rugby Union when I was a young bloke.

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