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Rethinking Safe Work Method Statements: Enabling Neurodiversity in Construction

In the realm of construction safety, the Safe Work Method Statement (SWMS) has been a key feature of the Australian work health and safety regulatory framework for decades.

Defined by Safe Work Australia as

a document that sets out the high-risk construction work activities to be carried out at a workplace, the hazards arising from these activities and the measures to be put in place to control the risks”.

SWMS is a legal requirement under the model Work Health and Safety (WHS) Regulations for defined high-risk construction work.

 

Such work includes working at heights greater than 2 metres, trenching and excavating over 1.5 metres, demolition, disturbing asbestos, structural alterations and repairs, work in confined spaces, using explosives, work on telecommunications towers, on or near pressurized gas mains or piping or energized electrical installations and services, work in areas of extreme artificial temperatures, in or near water or other liquid and diving work.

The Construction Work Code of Practice provides a helpful template and example of a completed SWMS.  It must be completed in consultation with workers by the

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Person Conducting the Business or Undertaking (PCBU), or the principal contractor if the work is being performed by contractors before the high-risk construction work commences.

Once the SWMS has been prepared, it becomes a crucial document in ensuring safety during high-risk construction work. The SWMS must be communicated to all workers involved in the high-risk construction work to ensure they understand the hazards, risks, and control measures outlined in the SWMS.

During the actual work, the SWMS serves as a guide. Workers must follow the documented procedures and safety measures and supervisors must monitor compliance with the SWMS. If conditions change (e.g., unexpected hazards arise), the SWMS may need to be adapted and the SWMS must be regularly reviewed and updated reflect any changes in work processes, equipment, or risks.

SWMS must remain accessible at the worksite and be retained for at least 2 years after the high-risk construction work is completed. It may be requested during inspections by safety regulators.

The objectives of the WHS legislation are the prevention of work-related injury and illness, the promotion of a health and safety culture, the provision of safe workplaces and systems of work, consultation and participation, compliance and enforcement and continuous improvement and the SWMS is an instrument intended to give effect to these objectives.

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In an article published in Construction News on 1 February 2024, author Andrew Kitley notes that the construction industry in the United Kingdom (UK) has made significant progress in accommodating and supporting neurodivergent workers and provides examples of steps construction employers can take in creating neuroinclusive workplaces. Kitley also acknowledges that the industry still has a long way to go in fully embracing and supporting neurodiversity and the article does not specifically mention any ways that worker safety, particularly high-risk construction work may be managed differently.

 

Australia arguably lags the UK, Canada, the United States, and several European countries in our approach to neuroinclusivity, especially within the employment context and according to Price Waterhouse Cooper had one of the lowest employment rates for people with disability in the OECD, ranking 21 out of 29 countries in 2019.

 

During a recent conversation with a young WHS professional working in the construction industry, a topical issue emerged – the accessibility of SWMS for neurodivergent workers who may be overrepresented in the construction industry with its predominantly male workforce demographic that attracts individuals who may not have completed secondary education and struggled in traditional educational environments.

 

Despite being trained in performing high-risk work and demonstrating competency, these workers often struggled with reading and/or preparing SWMS, which in turn lead to a technical breach of the WHS Regulations.

This forward-thinking and inclusive WHS professional devised an innovative solution. The approach involves empowering workers to produce video recordings directly at the job site. The digital video SWMS fulfills all the necessary elements of the hard-copy form, is readily available and accessible on-site for all workers and importantly, it can be retained for 2 years after the completion of high-risk work.

In the videos, workers describe the nature of the work they are undertaking and the environment, they identify and record potential hazards and assess risks associated with the tasks and most importantly, they demonstrate the control measures implemented to ensure safety.

Bypassing the traditional form-filling process, this approach streamlines communication and provides a more intuitive and accurate way for neurodivergent workers to convey their understanding of the risks and commitment to safety protocols.

Additionally, the video recordings serve as visual evidence of the worksite conditions, capturing the identified hazards and corresponding control measures to eliminate or reduce risk. In essence, this innovative solution bridges the gap between safety documentation and practical implementation.

The result? Increased compliance and engagement among workers, demonstrating that accommodating neurodiversity isn’t just a moral imperative but also a practical strategy for improving safety performance in high-risk construction work.

 

Despite its effectiveness, regulatory bodies continue to insist on the strict adherence to the traditional form-based approach, citing non-compliance due to the absence of filled-out forms. Apparently, the absence of the correctly completed form equates to a breach of the Regulation, despite the fact that all the evidentiary requirements are available in the videos and the safe performance of the high-risk work is assured.

 

This highlights a crucial gap between regulatory expectations and requirements and the practical realities of accommodating diverse communication abilities and

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styles in the workplace such as those workers who are Autistic and/or who have Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, Dyspraxia, Dyscalculia to name a few.

 The Work Health and Safety (WHS) Act mandates the responsibility of the PCBU to ensure the health and safety of ALL workers. Presumably this includes the roughly 1 in 8 workers who think, learn, communicate, regulate attention and emotion, perceive, and respond to risk and experiences the physical environment differently from their neurotypical peers.

 The Risk Management Code of Practice emphasises the need to consider individual differences in the workplace, explicitly mentioning workers with disabilities who may face increased susceptibility to harm.

In line with these principles AS/NZS 45001:2018 – Occupational health and safety management systems – Requirements with guidance for use articulates the importance of addressing diversity including disability, when determining communication needs within an organisation. This encompasses considerations such as gender, language, culture, literacy, and disability, ensuring that all workers can effectively understand and adhere to safety protocols.

For Australian employers to fully experience the advantages of neurodivergent talent and also discharge their primary duty of care, WHS Regulators must address the conflict between the stated objectives of the WHS Act and their rigid insistence on traditional paper-based communication and record-keeping methods. These outdated practices often do not work for neurodivergent workers. They create barriers for employers in ensuring worker safety and can discourage the hiring neurodivergent workers or individuals with disabilities.

Regulators play a crucial role in resolving this tension to promote greater inclusivity and the management of risk, particularly within high-risk industries such as construction. 

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