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Jul 04 2012

Tips for Writing Effective Safety Procedures

Safety ProceduresSafety procedures are an essential part of a safety management system and form a bridge between the general statements made in safety policies and the task specific instructions contained in such things as JSAs. The longer and more complicated they are the less likely they will be read and, therefore, the less likely they will be acted upon which defeats the purpose really.

Someone once said that explanations should be as brief as possible and no briefer and this certainly applies to safety procedures.Here are some suggestions for keeping them brief and easy to understand.

 Keeping Safety Procedures Focused

When writing safety procedures it is sometimes easy to drift into areas not directly related to the topic of the procedure. One way of avoiding these distractions is to  draw a flow chart. What is the start point, what is the end point and how do people get from one to the other? Developing a flowchart helps you focus on the important things people must to do to meet the goal of the safety procedure. It also helps make sure no steps are missed.

Template

A common template not only makes writing safety procedures easier it also allows users to become familiar with their structured and how to find the information they need. No one wants to have to scroll through pages of irrelevant information to find the bit that they want.

If your business already has a document control system then it is highly likely that a template already exists for business procedures. Using this template aligns the safety procedures with other business procedures with which your readers are already familiar. This makes them more likely to be accepted and used.

 Keep it Real

George Orwell (he wrote 1984, Animal Farm and “Big Brother” was his idea) wrote:

 The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.

Often safety procedures seem to be more of a wish list of things the safety group would like to happen rather than reflecting what is achievable and I’ve been guilty of this myself. Sometimes management want certain requirements written into safety procedures even though implementation in the field is unlikely. Whatever the reason, the writer is probably aware of what is happening and over-justifies the requirements making the safety procedure more difficult and complex to understand.

To help avoid this, have some field staff that you trust or whose opinion you value review your safety procedure before distributing it for formal consultation. Discuss it with them explaining what you’re trying to do and amend it to reflect the comment you receive. The support of the field staff, who actually have to implement the safety procedure, should help you convince management and others of the approach you’ve taken.

 Language

It is all too easy to slip into “safety speak” or use “fancy” long words when writing safety procedures. It may shortcut the process but that doesn’t help the people expected to read and follow the procedure understand what you’re talking about. So keep it simple, explain any jargon terms you may use and avoid those long words that no one can pronounce let alone understand.

 Length

Long safety procedures are often filled with “waffle” or complicated by trying to address too much.

Safety procedures are action documents. They should focus on providing clear direction what should be done, by whom, when and how. They direct employees on how the business expects them to behave when confronted with a particular hazard. There is no place for the type of generalised comments found in safety policies and restating policy statements in procedures adds nothing of value.

In some cases a single safety procedure can contain everything about a particular hazard and still be reasonably short and and simple. However, some hazards are more complicated and are better dealt with in a number of separate but related safety procedures. For example, rather than have one long procedure dealing with contractor management, it may be better to have a number of smaller ones dealing with the various aspects such as specification development, tender evaluation, induction and so forth.

 Legislation and External Standards

Compliance with a safety procedure should automatically produce compliance with legal requirements and any external standard that the business needs to comply with. There is no need to reference the legislation or standard or, even worse, cite it word for word for a few reasons:

  • In general I have found that people switch off the minute you start talking about these things;
  • It creates an impression that the business cares more about complying with legal and external requirements than they do about the safety of their workforce;
  • There is often no easy way of accessing these documents;
  • These requirements are often general and their application needs them to be interpreted. Different people may have differing interpretations. This can lead to debates about which interpretation is correct rather than the most effective way of dealing with a hazard. It is the businesses responsibility, in consultation with the workforce, to decide how legislation and external standards will be applied within their operations.

My view is that people in the field have enough to do without being expected to know or interpret legislation. That’s why businesses employ safety specialists.

Forms and Guidance Materials

Often, wordy details of what people are expected to do can be summarised into a form. The wording in the safety procedure then becomes a simple “Complete form ABC”. The form can contain details on how to complete it if necessary.

Guidelines can be appended to the safety procedure providing additional but non-essential information on what people are supposed to be doing. Such things as legal summaries, extracts from standards and so forth can be included as a guideline that those interested can refer to.

Other Procedures

If your business already has other management systems in place there is a good chance that some of the procedures needed for your safety management system have already been created. They may need some changes to accommodate the safety requirements but these may only be minor. This prevents duplication and is one step towards integrating safety into general business practices. Areas where this maybe possible include:

  • Administrative functions such as document control;
  • Risk management practices;
  • Incident reporting and investigation;
  • Hazard management such as chemicals (if there’s an environmental management system in place).

Even if full integration is not possible, cross referencing to other, non-safety related procedures may help reduce the size of your safety procedures.

Wrapping it Up

Safety procedures are the backbone of a safety management system and the success of the system is largely dependent on how well the safety procedures are followed by the workforce. They have to be written in a way that makes it easy for the workforce to understand and follow. They have to give clear direction and, at the same time, be flexible enough to be used in a variety of situations. That’s what makes them a challenge to write. Hopefully the tips in this post will help you to successfully meet this challenge.




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