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How to Use Standard Work Instructions to Improve Workplace Safety

By Bryan McWhorter
Published: February 14, 2019
Key Takeaways

Standardization ensures that work is carried out in a safe and reliable way.

When it comes to safety, you don't want anyone playing it by ear. You want standards.

Standards should be created for every work task and environment. Standard work instructions capture the safe way of carrying out the work. They provide control.

No One Takes Chances in Airline Safety

Aviation is a great example of this. Traveling with an airline is extremely safe due to the level of standardization they use. Aviation sets the standard for safety standardization. This gives us confidence that the plane will stay in the sky until the pilot safely lands at the desired destination (learn more in To Err Is Human – But Not with an Aircraft).


When you’re jetting across the sky at 30,000 feet and traveling at over 400 miles per hour in a pressurized metal tube, it’s nice to know safety is the top priority.

Consider these aviation safety standards, just to name a few:

  • Preflight checklist done before takeoff
  • Standardized flight instructions from the tower
  • Standardized landing and takeoff instructions in place at all airports
  • Flight direction and altitude standards in place to prevent air collisions
  • Emergency plans in place for flight emergencies

These measures ensure that the four million people who fly on commercial airlines each day get to their destination safely.

When I'm flying in a commercial jet, I would hate to be in a scenario where the pilot looks over at the copilot and says something like “I’m not sure about this situation, what do you think we should do?”

I don’t want any shooting from the hip on a plane – or at my workplace, for that matter. I want to remove variability and take control. We must design processes that are reliable and safe.

Standard Work Instructions Enable Success

We create standard work to enable success in safety and other key performance indicators such as cost, quality, and delivery. When things are going well and as planned, accidents are far less likely. That is what standard work provides: predictability, stability, consistency, and reliability (learn about Key EHS Performance Indicators Every Organization Needs to Track).

Standard work instructions (SWI) or standard operating procedures (SOP) captures the best way we know to do a task. Well designed and documented processes become our playbook.

Imagine someone asking you to bake chocolate chip cookies and you don’t have a recipe. How successful do you think you will be? Maybe you know your way around the oven better than I do, but without a method, I would probably make something that looks and feels more like a hockey puck than a cookie. Give me a recipe, though, and I can turn those ingredients into a dozen delicious cookies. SWI is just like that cookie recipe. It enables repeatable success. It removes variation.

Without standard work instructions, we're left with the tribal knowledge circulates through the workplace and whatever we can glean from job shadowing. Those can help, sure, but they're not reliable enough. You need SWIs.


How to Create Standard Work Instructions

Step One: List the Tasks

Have your employees (or yourself if you have no employees) list each task they perform throughout a shift.

Once that list is compiled, analyze it. Consider whether each task is necessary.

Step Two: Review the Tasks

For each identified task, write out step-by-step how the task is done. Capture the steps in pictures or video. Videotaping the process is a great way to study it with your team. I have done many SWI projects, and the video recordings almost always reveal waste and potential improvements.

Review the steps with your team. Is there a better way to complete the work task?

Step Three: Write Out the Instructions

Once you are sure you have the best version of the process, do the following:

  • Write step-by-step instructions, with pictures if needed – the goal is to be simple yet complete
  • Be sure to point out any key elements, such as the settings, the materials, or the tools that are used
  • List all safety considerations and control measures (perform a hazard assessment on the tasks)

Step Four: Expand Your Standard Work Instructions

Expand your standard work instructions beyond functions. Set standards for work environments to improve safety and workflow.

When employees come to work, they should find themselves in a workplace that has these three things in place:

  1. Clean and safe work areas
  2. All the supplies needed to do their work (tools, materials, information, and so forth)
  3. A process that is under control (no firefighting at the start of the shift – they may spend all day trying to gain control)

Elevate Safety

We elevate safety by designing safe work processes and a safe work environment. Standard work instructions ensures that our efforts in creating those are maintained and sustained over the long term. They keep us from sliding backward.

People are more likely to get hurt when things don't go according to plan. Do you have a plan? And are standard work instructions part of that plan? If not, it's time to revise it.

Let's follow the lead of the aviation industry and make standardization a central component of our approach to safety. And let's start by implementing standard work instruction.


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

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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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