How to Implement Standard Work Instructions and Improve Safety

By Bryan McWhorter
Last updated: November 4, 2021
Key Takeaways

Written work instructions are not a formality – they're a platform for success and safety. 

Standard work instructions (SWIs) aren't just a formality. They're a blueprint for getting work done efficiently and safely.


People are less likely to get hurt when following documented instructions. They also lessen frustration and make for a more pleasant workday.

SWIs are not meant to be a burden on employees. Rather, they're designed to enable success. It's like the difference between cooking with a recipe versus not having one on hand.


These are also living documents. When employees come up with better or safer methods of getting the work done, the standard work instructions should be updated. An SWI is not meant to be restrictive – it should encourage a spirit of continuous improvement, collaboration, and sharing knowledge.

The Two Levels of Instructions

There are two levels of standard work instructions. First, there's the "what" – what the work is and which tasks are involved in carrying it out. Then there's the "how" – in exactly what way the work should be performed.

The "What"

At this level, we list the tasks an employee will engage in during a work shift.

When new employes are handed a document that lists the activities they will perform during their day, it puts them more at ease.

Even workers who have been employed for a while can benefit from this type of document. We are all more relaxed when we understand what we'll be doing and know what is expected of us.


The "How"

For every task listed in the document, there should be an explanation of how to perform the task. It should detail the methods for doing it as safely and efficiently as possible.

These instructions detail the steps, tools, supplies, and safety control measures that are involved in carrying out the task.

(Learn about The Hierarchy of Hazard Controls)

The 5 Levels of Knowledge Sharing

At its core, an SWI is a way to share knowledge. There are five levels of knowledge sharing:

  1. No process (“tribal knowledge")
  2. There is a process but it is not documented
  3. There is a documented process in place
  4. Work processes are documented, standardized, and controlled
  5. Documented work instructions are continuously improved

The further along these five levels you go, the safer and more efficient your organization will be.

Which of these levels represents your organization?

Hopefully not the first. Having no standard work instructions is a recipe for waste, mistakes, and accidents. You don't want your employees shooting from the hip and going on their best guesses. Relying on tribal knowledge is also the least effective way to train your employees.

(Learn more in 6 Steps for Designing a Training Program that Strengthens Safety)

It is easier to succeed with standard work instructions, just like it's easier to put together a three-course meal with detailed recipes than by guessing measurements and cooking times.

Not having documented instructions forces your employees to work harder. They have to muddle through instead of having clear guidelines.

Let me give you one example of this from my own life.

I purchased an entertainment center for my living room. When I opened the box, I found that the manufacturer had forgotten to include the assembly instructions.

If you're anything like me, you'll brush this off and tell your spouse it's no big deal. "I've got this," you'll say with unwarranted confidence.

A few hours and several curse words later, it becomes clear that I haven't got this. There's still no entertainment center, just a pile of parts. Parts that I'm cosnidering using as fuel for our fireplace.

While I was giving up hope, my wife was locating the instructions on the manufacturer's website. With those in hand, she builds the unit in under half an hour, humming along and actually enjoying the project.

Without instructions, I got nowhere. With instructions, she swiftly put together our brand new entertainment center – and not a single piece of it ended up in the fireplace.

Creating Standard Work

If you don't have standard work instructions in place, start by capturing the “what.” List the activities your employees engage in as part of their work. Rate the tasks by how critical they are and the level of risk involved.

Here's an example of what the documentation process might look like:

  1. Capture and list all work activities (at a high level – don’t get bogged down by the details).
  2. Rate the activities to determine which ones to focus on first.
  3. Record a video of the the activity and study it with those who perform the work. Look for better ways to perform the activity – simplify steps and eliminate unnecessary tools, supplies, and effort.
  4. Highlight safety by listing hazards and control measures, including the PPE required for the task.
  5. Put the documented instructions into action – use them for training and look for ways to improve them.

Standard work instructions is the blueprint for how the work should be done. They document the best way to perform the task and make the best use of the limited resources and time that you have available. Even better, they create a safer workplace. When employees have documented instructions to follow, they're far less likely to get hurt.

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Written by Bryan McWhorter | Lead Safety Advisor, Author, Writer, Speaker

Bryan McWhorter

Bryan McWhorter is a safety professional with eight years of experience in driving and teaching safety. Bryan gained his knowledge and experience as the safety officer and Senior Trainer for Philips Lighting. Philips is a strong health and well-being company that promotes a safety first culture.

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