Are Safe Work Method Statements Required?

Posted by Kirsten Ross

Safe Work Method Statements (SWMS) are used to keep people on worksites safe and aware of hazards. But are these documents any use? And why can they differ so drastically in length?

In this episode of Compliance Conversations we have discussed why SWMS are now being used in New Zealand, and what purpose these documents actually serve while on site. 

The guest for the episode is Laurie O'Donoghue from Total Management and Training. Laurie has spent many years as a principle consultant/trainer and knows a thing or two about Safe Work Method Statements. 


Compliance Conversations is a new series coming to your screens. This is where we chat with some industry experts about the pitfalls and advantages  of compliance, and provide you with insights into your compliance industry.


What's the difference between JSA and SWMS?

Safe Work Method Statements (SWMS) are relatively recent to New Zealand, we have seen them appear in the last few years, presumably from Australian companies that are carrying out construction work in New Zealand. 

The problem with these being new is that many companies don't really know what they are and how they differ from Job Safety Analysis (JSA). We asked Laurie to explain this to us, considering he has had many years experience with them. 


"The major difference is, a Safe Work Method statement is a legislative requirement for certain types of work or high-risk construction work. 

Depending on which jurisdiction you're in (there are 16/17 different types), it's specifically about that type of work. It doesn't encompass all construction activities.

It is only relative to the ones that are listed - things like working at heights over two meters, working in a trench more than 1.5 meters deep, working around mobile plant.

The Safe Work Method statement should be developed for those".


Why are SWMS needed for low risk activities? 

Here at Mango, we have heard stories of a plumber for example, who is certified to ISO 9001, has all the correct licences and processes in place but he is still asked to produce a SWMS.

The activity he is carrying out is not high risk and he's been doing this for many years. Is it the principle making the plumber do it because they interpret the requirements wrong, or is it just that everyone has to do it to cover their bases? 


"There are a lot of situations where under the legislation, a Safe Work Method statement is not required. But there are a number of major contractors and minor contractors requiring a Safe Work Method statement for everything.

And what they're trying to do is combine two sections of the legislation together into one document.

The legislation basically says we've got to provide information, instruction and training to all workers for the work that they're doing. And that doesn't have to be provided in every single SWMS. It can be provided in a operation manual, for example.

If you're going to be using electric power tools on a site, then you can have within your operational manual that they have to be tested, tagged and inspected. All of those things can  be documented in the operational manual. 

It does not have to appear in every single SWMS. But the trouble is, over the years, it's evolved, that we have a SWMs for everything, which a number of companies have that in place. 

But they are changing and we're seeing lately that some of the major tier one builders are actually moving away from that now.  From their contractors all they're asking for is safe work method statements for high risk construction work, and evidence of information and instruction and training and other things".


The Office of the Federal Safety Commission

Why is it that the office of the federal safety commission encourages these Safe Work Method Statements and don't question when organisations have them?


"In defence of the Office of the Federal Safety Commission - One thing that they don't do is it doesn't dictate how an organisation meets the criteria.

It sets the criteria down. All that really says is there has to be safe work method statements for high risk construction work. And that's really all it ever has said.

But it certainly has been clarified, more recently by the Office of the Federal Safety Commission, by putting out a guideline on what should be in a safe work method statement.

And if you actually read that guideline, it's very specific, that it is only required for high risk instruction".


Can you refuse to provide a SWMS?

We have seen organisations who have had the principal say they must provide a SWMS, even when they have evidence elsewhere (such as an operations manual), which could essentially be provided instead.

We asked Laurie whether people who find themselves in this position can kick back to say they have evidence elsewhere, but not provide the SWMW...


"That will depend on the contractual arrangements. If it says in the contract that you have got for that principal contractor, or with that organisation that they want a safe work method statement for everything, then unfortunately, you have to provide that. 

If it's not in a contract, you could question it and say, 'Look, this is how we do it'. It will be up to that organisation as to whether they accept that. You can't use legislation to enforce it, because it's more about your contract with an organisation, other legislative requirement.

If you go back to the legislation, it actually just says we've got to manage risk. And we've got to have processes in place again, except for some hazards, it doesn't actually define how we've got to do it.

It allows flexibility in the way we manage risk in the workplace. And that's always the intent.

The problem is, as I said, over the years, it's evolved some of it's dependent on individuals, some individuals have very, very defined ideas about what should be in a safe work method statement. And if they're in a position of authority in that organisation, that's the way that organisation will work".


The Problem with lengthy SWMS

When we started selling Mango into Australia, one of the things that we came up against was the SWMS. Peter elaborates on this, reflecting back to when he saw his first SWMS.  


"When I saw my first SWMS, I thought it was the whole operations manual, but it was only one function.

People have to sign off on these, don't they? So, I questioned some of the people over there about how they are applying reasonably practical things.

If someone's level of reading and comprehension is not very good, getting them to read something that's 20-100 pages is not very practical. If that person had an accident and they pulled up this large document, they will have a problem reading this".


"That's a very accurate description because the reality is, is when you get SWMS of numerous pages and then say to the guys, you need to understand this, they will just sign it to say they do.

I've had situations on site where they've been signed by people who have very, very low literacy skills. There is no way these workers have actually gone through that safe work method statement, and there is no evidence of them being sat down and taken through it.

One of the worst examples I've seen is a safe work method statement of 140 pages for Block Laying. I know that some of the block layers had very poor literacy skills, so no one is going to convince me that they went through 140 pages of that safe work method statement".



  1. SWMS are powerful when used right, but they have to be practical.
  2. The intended outcome has to be met - which is to pass on knowledge for a high-risk activity.
  3. For any safety managers who are writing these things - remember your audience


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Tags: Compliance, SWMS, Safe Work Method Statements, Compliance Conversations