Australia: Safety Management Systems (SMS) and the Heavy Vehicle National Law (HVNL)

Last Updated: 27 February 2019
Article by Adam Vrahnos

Most Read Contributor in Australia, February 2019

Since 1 October 2018, heavy vehicle supply chain participants of all sizes have been feverishly trying to alter their business practices to stay compliant with the changes to the Heavy Vehicle National Law (HNVL). One of the most notable changes is the introduction of new ‘safety duties’ which will apply to all parties involved in the Chain of Responsibility (CoR).

Everyone conducting transport activities in the heavy vehicle supply chain has a responsibility to prevent or minimise potential injury, danger or loss by ensuring their transport activities are safe.

Having a Safety Management System (SMS) in place in your business can be one of the most effective ways of meeting your safety obligations under the HVNL. Adopting and actively using an SMS has proven to help reduce safety-related incidents in other heavy transport industries, such as maritime, rail and aviation. 

This article highlights the benefits of implementing a SMS and demonstrates how an SMS can assist businesses meet its safety obligations under the HVNL. 

What is a SMS? 

A SMS is a systematic approach to managing safety, including the necessary organisational structures, accountabilities, policies and procedures, which is integrated throughout the business wherever possible. 

A SMS helps businesses continuously improve the safety of your operations through the following four components: 

  • safety policy and documentation
  • safety risk management
  • safety assurance
  • safety promotion and training.

Implementation of the above components provides businesses with a structured set of guidelines that details an organisation's processes for maintaining safety in accordance with established regulations, specifications or legislation.

As with any compliance framework, the components seek to implement communication processes, risk controls and governance practices for maintaining compliance. 

The above components and further information about how to implement the above components are set out in more detail below. 

SMS components

Safety policy and documentation

Your entire organisation should be committed to establishing and maintaining policies and procedures that ensure work is performed safely.

Business owners or executives under the amended HVNL have direct duties and are accountable for their businesses using safe practices throughout its commercial operations. Of course, executives can delegate tasks to implement those safe practices, but ultimately executives cannot delegate their duties under the HVNL. 

As a first step for limiting liability and ensuring safety across a business’ commercial activities, a documented safety policy should be in place which essentially points the business in the right direction. A safety policy should: 

  • acknowledge that executives and the organisation are committed to safety
  • reflects the business’ operating environment 
  • outlines the business’ approach to safety
  • explains how safety and risks will be managed and by whom
  • shows how the business will continuously improve its safety performance. 

As a second step, safety objectives should be implemented. The purpose of these safety objectives is to complement the safety policy, and help workers envision how safety can be achieved in practical terms. Some examples of safety objectives include:

  • conducting weekly safety meetings with employees
  • responding to all hazard reports within 24 hours
  • reviewing all risks and risk controls at least every six months
  • promoting reporting of maintenance issues to reduce vehicle downtime.

As a third step, businesses should clearly establish the safety responsibilities of each employee. Responsibilities should be clearly defined, appropriately allocated to the right person in the business and there should be a direct reporting line to upper management/ executives to report safety issues. Establishing a direct reporting line is a critical part of ensuring compliance. It allows executives to demonstrate that not only are safety measures in place but that the executive are taking proactive steps to ensure that any safety issues during the course of the day to day operations of the business are appropriately reported. 

Lastly, all staff members should make an effort to gain operational experience and boost their knowledge of safety in their organisation. Everyone within a business has some responsibility to ensure safety, and appropriately trained staff is a major step in the right direction. 

Underpinning all of the above is a need to document each step. It is often the most burdensome but it needs to be done. While a business may be confident they are compliant, that business needs to ensure the documentation can demonstrate to someone outside the business that they are compliant. Documents may include procedures, checklists, forms etc which can all be used to support the steps taken to ensure safety. 

Safety risk management

There are four subcomponents to safety risk management: Hazard identification, risk assessment and mitigation/treatment, risk monitoring and incident reporting. Together, each subcomponent ensures there is a proactive approach to managing safety and creates a process of identifying, assessing, treating and monitoring risks the business encounters. 

Your risk management processes may improve where the entire organisation is collectively working towards the day-to-day identification and management of risk. This requires all employees of all levels to be mindful of the safety risks and identify hazards that your organisation is exposed to and are likely to encounter. Employees engaged in the day to day operations of the businesses are best placed to identify different hazards such as: 

  • physical objects that are clearly visible
  • behaviours
  • a business’ policies or procedures. 

Once hazards are identified, a risk assessment should then be undertaken. A risk assessment is useful in identifying the consequences if a hazard materialises, the extent to which hazards may interact or compound, and the manner and timeframe in which these hazards should ideally be resolved. Relevantly, hazard controls should be put in place to mitigate potential risks.

After a risk has been identified and assessed, the next step is to ensure that the risk has been treated. This requires a control to be implemented to mitigate the risk and then monitoring/reviewing how that control is working to mitigate the risk. Don’t wait until something goes wrong -it’s important to review the effectiveness periodically.

As part of a businesses safety risk management framework, there should also be a robust incident reporting mechanism. Despite a business’s efforts, incidents and near misses will inevitably occur. When those incidents do occur, business’ must have a system in place to allow employees to report those incidents to the appropriate person within the business to gather that information, document it and allow the incident to be investigated/analysed to improve future safety outcomes. An incident reporting mechanism should allow collection of information relating to:

  • the types of incidents or near misses that need to be reported
  • who needs to report incidents, when and to whom
  • instructions for dealing with larger incidents, such as: contacting emergency services – preserving the site of the incident
  • attending to injuries and ensuring the safety of those involved.

Safety assurance

In addition to undertaking risk assessments, operators should also prioritise safety assurance in their organisation. Safety assurance is achieved by making a commitment to the following four aspects your organisation:

  • internal safety investigations this is a commitment to monitoring and evaluating any incidents or near-misses that your organisation encounters. Importantly, we recommend that organisations are mindful of how processes can change and be improved, as opposed to merely identifying and punishing those that are responsible
  • safety performance monitoring and management – your organisation should be mindful of how your SMS operates and any potential shortfalls it may have. It should also put mechanisms in place to allow stakeholders in your organisation to amend and improve the SMS. A significant consideration is how your SMS acknowledges and reacts to areas that are of increasing risk to your organisation
  • change management – safety risks often evolve out of an organisation’s inability to adapt to change. As a result, it is crucial that an SMS ensure the safety of an organisation by developing a structured approach to change management. This may involve increasing the participation of all employees in safety initiatives or even consistently evaluating the risk that a change may bring in an organisation
  • continuous improvement – while it may be helpful to collect data on risk management and safety, it is of equal importance that organisations are mindful of how the data collected can shape a SMS. Accordingly, we highly recommend that your organisation periodically evaluate your SMS, and implement any recommended changes to your SMS.

Safety promotion and training

An effective SMS can be achieved by promoting and communicating safety at all levels of an organisation. In practical terms this means:

  • establishing adequate training and education programs – your organisation should provide safety training which provides employees with the knowledge and skills necessary to help identify, manage and resolve safety risks, as well as perform their responsibilities safely. A helpful tip here is to provide refresher courses throughout the year to ensure that all employees are up to date
  • encouraging safety communication throughout the organisation – employees at all levels should be encouraged to communicate their thoughts on safety in an organisation. Conveniently, by opening up avenues for employees to express their thoughts when it comes to safety, your organisation's SMS may improve more holistically
  • prioritising safe practices – a successful SMS is one which is supported by all employees. Best practice states that senior management should set an example for safe working practices. Ideally this means that a new employee entering your organisation should be able to recognise the entire organisation's commitment to safety.

This publication does not deal with every important topic or change in law and is not intended to be relied upon as a substitute for legal or other advice that may be relevant to the reader's specific circumstances. If you have found this publication of interest and would like to know more or wish to obtain legal advice relevant to your circumstances please contact one of the named individuals listed.

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