With an average of 35 workers being seriously injured every day, the building and construction sector in Australia has a high profile when it comes to occupational health and safety hazards.

Whether it is heavy lifting or carrying, working at height, working in and around vehicles, equipment and machinery or working near electricity, projects within the sector can involve many dangers.

When managing these, safe work method statement (SWMS) are important tools. These documents outline any high-risk activities within a workplace, hazards arising out of these and control measures which will be adopted to manage these risks. Under OHS legislation in place throughout various states and territories, a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) within the building sector must prepare a SWMS before commencing any of 18 specific high-risk construction activities.

That raises questions about misconceptions surrounding safe work method statements, why SWMSs are necessary, common areas where mistakes are made and strategies which are needed to take the SWMS from being merely a compliance document to something which helps drive safety outcomes on site.

Stephanie Creagh, director of technical policy at Safe Work Australia, says misconceptions surround three areas.

First, Creagh says there is a misconception that SWMSs need to be detailed and complicated. Whilst statements do need to specify hazards associated with high-risk activities as well as control measures which will be in place to manage them, she says those which are unduly complicated can be difficult to understand. To be effective, she says SWMSs need to be easily understood and accessible to all.

Second, SWMSs can be seen as a ‘set and forget’ type of tool. By contrast, they need to be reviewed and updated as jobs progress and the risk environment on site evolves accordingly. At the very least, Creagh says they should be reviewed every time an incident occurs to ensure that control measures are adequate and being followed. Indeed, where it becomes clear that aspects of the statement are not being followed, work should stop and the employer must ensure that everyone is aware of the control measures which are in place. This, she said, may be an opportune time to review the SWMS and reflect upon why compliance was not happening in that particular area.

Third, there is a misconception that SWMSs are generic in nature. Creagh says they should be tailored to the particular work site in question and must take into account the specific context of that site. If you were working on a demolition on a new work site, for example, you might want to think about the types of gradients for that site, the surfaces you are working on and how mobile plant might interact with traffic.

Beyond legal requirements, Creagh says having written and formal statements provide important value in driving site safety. Having specific statements, she says, helps to ensure all parties are clear about the control measures which are in place across the site.

This helps to avoid a situation whereby workers are forced to make work health and safety decisions on the go. Instead, the SWMSs will have been carefully worked through before work has started. In addition, with different contractors coming and going, having a safe work method statement in place helps to ensure that everyone on site is on the same page regarding safety procedures throughout the project and that there is a central reference point at which all parties can confirm what is planned for the day and what controls need to be implemented for these tasks.

In terms of mistakes, Creagh says that notwithstanding the need to avoid SWMSs which are unduly complicated, employers could go the other way and produce statements which contain insufficient detail. For instance, statements which merely indicate that workers should ‘use PPE’ are insufficient and leave workers needing to decide what protective equipment they need for themselves. Instead, she says organisations should be specific about the type of hand, eye or head protection required.

In terms of strategies to maximise the value of the SWMS as documents which help to drive safe practices, Creagh says action is needed on several fronts. First, the language should be easily understood by all – including workers for whom English is a second language (visual references help). When developing SWMSs, involvement of workers and contractors/subcontractors helps generate buy-in and a sense of ownership of the statement and helps ensure the statement itself informed by worker/contractor knowledge and experience. By doing this, Creagh says organisations can initiate important conversations about safety and thus drive a culture in which safe work practices are valued.


Queensland based Safety for Life director Caroline Kingston offers a slightly different perspective. Kingston says a common misconception among smaller companies revolves around the notion that SWMSs are required for all tasks. In fact, she says, SWMSs are required for high-risk activities only. Indeed, for work involving lower levels of risk, Kingston says a Job Safety Analysis may be more appropriate than a SWMS.

Kingston cautions about any suggestions about an SWMS serving as a driver for outcomes on site. Rather, she says, an SWMS is simply a tool for administrative control which prescribes details of work to be done, hazard involved and who is charged with responsibility for ensuring that risk controls are implemented, suitable (especially under changing circumstances on site) and understood by relevant workers.

Kington also cautions against reliance upon generic statements, and warns especially about presumptions that SWMS templates sold over the counter are necessarily ready for use on site. Whereas Safety Culture (a supplier of occupational health and safety materials) offers several hundred different types of templates, for example, there are only 18 high-risk construction work activities. Rather, Kingston says SWMSs must account for specific dangers which are relevant for the job and site in question.

Detailed information about SMWSs as they apply to building and construction is available from an information sheet provided by Save Work Australia.

Here are some basic facts about the documents:

• A safe work method statement (SWMS) is a document which outlines high risk activities which are to be carried out at a workplace, the hazards arising from these and the measures to be implemented in order to control the relevant dangers.
• A SWMS is different from other documents which focus on specific processes, such as a Job Safety Analysis or a Safe Operating Procedure. An SWMS is not a procedure but rather a tool to help supervisors and workers confirm and monitor the control measures required on site.
• Any person carrying on a business or undertaking (PCBU) in building and construction must prepare a SWMS prior to commencing any of 18 activities which are considered to be high-risk construction work activities as defined under Work Health and Safety legislation.
• SWMSs are not needed for work of a minor nature.
• The documents must (a) identify the work that is high-risk construction work (b) specify hazards relating to the work (c) describe the measures to be implemented and control the risk and (d) describe how control measures are to be implemented, monitored and reviewed.
• Principal contractors on projects worth more than $250,000 must make reasonable steps to obtain SWMS in relation to high-risk construction work performed by subcontractors.
• Generic SWMS are not encouraged and may not meet WHS requirements where the fail to adequately account for the site-specific context of relevant dangers. However, one SWMS can be prepared to cover multiple tasks provided it takes into account the hazards and risks of each workplace.
• SWMS should be monitored for compliance and reviewed if necessary as the project evolves
• The SWMS should ideally be kept at the site of the high-risk activities or at least must be kept at a location where it can be delivered to the workplace quickly
• A SWMS should be short and not overly complicated
• A SWMS must be easily understood, including (where relevant) by workers from non-English speaking backgrounds

High-risk construction activities include:

  1. working at a level higher than two metres
  2. work which is likely to involve disturbing asbestos
  3. work near chemical, fuel or refrigerant lines
  4. tilt-up or precast concrete elements
  5. working in areas with artificial temperature extremes
  6. work on a telecommunications tower
  7. temporary load bearing support or structural alterations repairs
  8. use of explosives
  9. work in or near electrical installations or services
  10. work next to roads, railways lines or shipping lanes
  11. work in or near water or other liquids that could involve drowning risk
  12. demolition of load bearing structure
  13. work in or near confined spaces
  14. work in or near pressurised gas mains or pipes
  15. work in an area that may have a contaminated or flammable area
  16. work in an area with movement of powered mobile plant
  17. diving work