The importance of Safe Systems of Work

shutterstock_91104128Recently a consultant was involved in discussion with a client following an incident. The cause of the incident, which resulted in a serious injury, appeared to arise from failure to follow a safe system of work which had been the subject of training and would be familiar to all relevant staff.

It would be unproductive to expect all workers to maintain a permanent state of “high alert” constantly examining their surroundings for sources of harm. It seems more reasonable that management systematically work their way through each area and process in the workplace, considering what harm may occur to their staff during the working day. They may do this in the form of a risk assessment which considers how effectively the risks for each task are controlled and what else must be done before these risks can be considered as adequately minimised. In order to ensure the task has been properly assessed the relevant workers must be consulted. These are the first steps in devising a safe system of work.

To complete the “safe system”, the control measures must be examined in order to consider what further components are required, such as a new type of guard or personal protective equipment such as helmets or gloves. The need for training must also be considered in terms of how the task is actually conducted, how to operate and test new controls (e.g. light guards) and what PPE to use, or not use in some circumstances, what to do in an unusual or emergency situation and how to obtain new PPE, as and when required.

Safe-Systems-Case-StudyOnce all this training has been delivered it is reasonable to assume that all staff who need to know the safe system are, in fact, aware of its provisions. Reference material such as copies of assessments or guidance notes should be available and supervisors, who are similarly trained, should ensure that staff fully use the control systems devised.

Supervisors cannot, however, always be on hand to correct any lapses in the application of the system. It is reasonable to expect staff to show a sense of personal responsibility and follow the systems designed to ensure their safety. In fact, it is more than reasonable; there is a Legal obligation on all persons to act in line with instruction and training provided to them in these matters and failure to do so has occasionally resulted in prosecutions.

Why would anyone disregard these safe systems? Assuming adequate training, there are a number of reasons which revolve around behavioural issues. An example could be someone not going for a ladder because the item they are looking is for is just in front of them, up one or two levels on racking, or a worker not putting on safety glasses because they are only going to quickly grind off a burr on some metal workpiece. No doubt we can all think of a few shortcuts we have seen (or taken) with the best of intentions in mind; we “just want to get on”. However, it is just as likely that an injury will occur within the first second of grinding operations as after, say, 10 minutes of work; there is no “qualifying period” before which injury will not occur and management cannot condone staff taking short cuts.

Having a safe system provides a consistent approach to each task and many safeguards are similar for certain risks, like wearing the same type of face mask for certain types of dust exposure or adjusting a guard close to a workpiece. These “repeat” features assist in remembering the correct principles, in conjunction with proper training.

The reason safe systems of work are created is to ensure workers do not suffer serious, possibly disabling injury and staff owe it to themselves, their dependants and their employer to work in line with these in order to preserve their health. Staff must continue to apply the systems they have been trained in and resist any temptation to take shortcuts.

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