Standard Operating Procedures vs Policies | Hasmate health and safety
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Standard Operating Procedures vs Policies

Standard Operating Procedures vs Policies

What is the difference between policies, processes, procedures, task instructions, and safe operating procedures?

The New Zealand health and safety industry are full of acronyms, and this too often becomes confusing to business owners and employees, especially when one considers the influx of workers from offshore.  Another factor is that it is estimated that there is approximately a 40% literacy and numeracy understanding issue in the New Zealand workplace, so it is important that the policies and standard operating procedures are in simple terms.

The Americans recognised this in the 1960s in Vietnam, when they had to write their training procedures for cleaning a tank in a comic GI Joe style.

Often there are misunderstanding and different interpretations of what means what, and then this can lead to the game of semantics, as one business recently found out.

The employees of a business were involved in a notifiable event accident that resulted in several serious injuries. During the investigation by the regulator, Worksafe NZ, it was found that there was a lock out procedure in place for when entering machinery for repair, cleaning, servicing and maintenance – but no procedure for when having to work and undertake repairs in the confined space. No employees worked in the area during production, due to the enclosed and dusty conditions.

This one event raises the following questions:

  1. What is defined or considered to be a policy, procedure, and/or safe operating procedure?
  2. When should it be developed as a training or communication tool for the safety of employees and for the financial viability of any business?

What the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 requires:

The obligations of the PCBU and their primary duty of care

Refer to Section 36 (3) (c) of the Act that states that, PCBU must ensure so far as reasonably practicable provide “the provision and maintenance of a safe system of work”.

The interesting point about this provision is, what defines “a safe system of work”?

As defined by WorkSafe NZ, a safe system of work is a formal procedure which results from systematic examination of a task in order to identify all the hazards.

It defines safe methods to ensure that hazards are eliminated, or risks minimized.

The following points may help to clarify this:

  1. A policy is an overarching statement that includes guiding principles used to set direction in a business. It is usually a one-page document or just several paragraphs that sets out the company’s directors or owners’ direction of how a compliance requirement or other actions are to be carried out or adhered to.
  2. A procedure is a document written to support a “policy directive” and captures those elements and adds more information for functional responsibilities, objectives, and methods to achieve a given outcome.
  3. A safe operating procedure or standard operating procedures (SOPs) sets out in a step by step process of how to accomplish a quality, or safety outcome for the task in hand. It is, in many respects, like a task instruction and can include the quality, safety, and policy requirements, as well as images and photos for guidance to understand the requirements of a task or job.
  4. A task instruction is a series of steps to be followed as a consistent and repetitive approach to accomplish a result. It is designed to describe who, what, where, when, and why by means a function is to be undertaken. This can include any quality, safety or industry standards, as well as images and photos for guidance that need to be communicated to the user or employee learning the tasks.
  5. A Safe Work Method Statement (SWMS) is a legal document that outlines the high-risk activities carried out within a workplace, the hazards that may arise from these activities, and safety measures put in place to control the risks. This can be in conjunction with a completed site-specific safety plan (SSSP) or job safety analysis (JSA).
  6. A health and safety alert are usually developed as the result of a near miss incident or accident to inform staff of what happened, the corrective action, what not to do, or what to do in future.

Training tools

All the above can be used as training and communication tools for a business. The key to the success of these documents is the development, the method of how they are used or communicated, and how often they are monitored and reviewed.

They should be reviewed at least annually or following an accident or product non-conformance to ensure that they keep up with any legislative requirements, industry changes, and of course any business changes.

If they are amended, don’t forget to communicate these changes to those effected or use the documents.

Please contact us if you wish to discuss this further.