Usable procedures

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What are usable procedures?

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Usable procedures in the 10 Human and Organisational Factors

Procedures are generally designed to protect against error by providing a consistent and safe means of performing a task.

Procedures include work instructions, permits to work and safe work method statements. These are recognised as an agreed safe way of performing a task, and may include:

  • step-by-step instructions
  • diagrams
  • checklists
  • photographs
  • original equipment manufacturer (OEM) instructions.

Procedures form part of an effective safety management system. If they are difficult to use, it can increase the likelihood of incidents. Provision of clear, concise and accurate procedures is an important measure that needs to be taken to prevent and mitigate unwanted outcomes.

Why are they important?

Formal documented procedures are important for ensuring that the entire workforce is operating from the same information – information which has been analysed, tested and trialled, and is known to be the most effective and safe way to perform the task.

Procedures are important in maintaining consistency in both the way a task is carried out by experienced workers and training new or inexperienced workers in how to do the task. Provision of clear, concise and accurate procedures is an important measure that needs to be taken to prevent, control and mitigate unwanted outcomes.

Properties of usable procedures

  • Easy to obtain when needed.
  • Fit for purpose: e.g. a laminated pocket guide, a large manual, electronic copies on an intranet, a folder on a desktop.
  • Accurate and up-to-date.
  • Signed and dated, showing who authorised them and when they need to be reviewed again.
  • Checked regularly to ensure that they continue to properly reflect the job they are being used for and therefore are still a valid control. Be prepared to make changes if required.

Guidance on the development and use of procedures

It is important to have an effective system for producing procedures and to ensure that the content is relevant to the context in which it will be used. Procedures should:

  • be written based on a task analysis and risk assessment of the task to be done. The people who carry out those tasks should be involved in the analysis and writing process.
  • include controls, wherever possible. The simplest example of this is a procedure that includes the personal protective equipment (PPE) to be worn while doing a specific job.
  • be clear about what happens next. If an instruction is given, the procedure should make it clear what the effect will be e.g. ‘When pump AB12 starts, pressure on gauge CD34 will begin to rise.’
  • be realistic. It should be feasible to carry out the actions in the procedure given the people, their competence, and the equipment and amount of time available.
  • be easy to navigate, giving a short description of the whole job, a clear contents page and index, sections with headings, flowcharts, etc. Consider developing a standard for designing procedures.
  • be complete and contain the right amount of information, including pictures and diagrams.
  • consider the literacy and numeracy capability of the people using the procedures. 
Tips for writing procedures

When writing procedures:

  • use clear and concise sentences
  • avoid complicated and ambiguous language
  • use terms the user will know (avoid slang, acronyms and jargon)
  • avoid using different terms for the same thing
  • write ‘actively’; e.g. ‘remove the access cover’ rather than ‘the access cover should be removed’
  • be as precise about actions as possible
  • set out actions in the right order; e.g. ‘isolate the power supply, then carry out step five’, rather than, ‘perform step five after isolating the power supply’
  • clearly emphasise any hazards and precautions, PPE requirements and warnings with capital letters, bold text or other highlighting
  • avoid negatives where possible; e.g. ‘wait until the pipe has fully depressurised, then start drilling’, rather than ‘do not start drilling if the pipe has not been depressurised’
  • provide aids such as checkboxes to keep track of which steps have been completed, if lengthy
  • include a glossary of terms and abbreviations. Use the term in full with the abbreviation in brackets the first time it is used in any procedure.

Issues associated with procedures

Generally, there are two main issues associated with using procedures: over-reliance on procedures as a risk control measure and failure to comply with procedures.

Over-reliance on procedures as a risk control measure

Procedures are categorised as an administrative control in the hierarchy of controls. This means that they are less effective than other controls, such as elimination, substitution, isolation and engineering.

The most significant vulnerability in using procedures as a risk control mechanism is that they depend on human reliability to be effective. Therefore, they should not be relied upon in isolation as a risk control.

Organisations should avoid simply writing a procedure in response to an incident that resulted from human error without being able to justify how the introduction of the procedure addresses the cause of the incident and reduces the likelihood of it reoccurring.

Failure to comply with procedures

Failure to comply with procedures typically arises because the procedures may:

  • be poorly written
  • be inaccessible
  • be difficult to find
  • not be logically structured
  • contain assumptions (e.g. re-assembly of the device is simply the reverse of dis-assembly)
  • not cover unusual circumstances
  • be factually incorrect
  • describe how the job is done in theory rather than in reality; i.e. it does not reflect how it is actually done in practice.

Incorrect, incomplete, unclear, outdated or hard-to-find procedures can lead to people taking shortcuts and making errors.

On the other hand, usable procedures reduce the likelihood of operator failures that get categorised as a ‘mistake’.

Monitoring and review of procedures

There is potential for the effectiveness of any system to degrade over time, including procedures. To prevent this and maintain system efficacy, regular monitoring, review, audit and corrective action are required.

Auditing can check that the system is being adhered to and whether employees have made any deliberate adjustments to the system or whether they have inadvertently deviated from it. Identifying the reason for the intended or unintended adjustments or deviations is necessary to maintain system relevance and determine whether the changes are justifiable and need to be formalised or whether they compromise safety.


What are safe work procedures (SWPs)?

This DMIRS webpage explains the role and typical content of safe work procedures.

How is a safe work procedure (SWP) developed?

This webpage by DMIRS provides more information on the process for developing safe work procedures (SWPs).