The heart of this company’s problem was that they didn’t have the expertise to evaluate the method statements, so had no basis for distinguishing good from bad. When I enquired what they actually did with them, the safety officer admitted that they often resorted to comparing the method statements of competing sub-contractors and looking for differences which might be significant.

Whether assessing potential sub-contractors or reviewing internal procedures, there are always likely to be problems when an employer lacks the know-how to perform a basic evaluation or identify where additional expertise is required. However, for all those faced with such challenges, the following should prove useful. It sets out what is involved in producing a typical method statement for a lifting operation, or a maintenance operation on an overhead crane.

Once the task in hand has been identified, the first stage is the risk assessment. At this point, two distinct concepts need to be understood: hazard and risk. A hazard is something with the potential to cause harm. This can include articles, substances, methods of work and the working environment. Risk is a combination of the likelihood of that harm occurring and the severity of the consequences.

In most cases it is relatively easy to identify the hazards, as they typically fall into a few groups, including:

• Tripping, slipping and falling (particularly from a height)

• Being hit by vehicles, falling material, etc.

• Exposure to substances, dust, extremes of temperature, fire etc.

• Exposure to other machinery and processes in the area

• Injury from manual handling.

We all do risk assessments in our everyday lives without thinking about it. We look both ways before crossing the road and assess whether the speed and proximity of vehicles makes it safe to cross. However, to assess some risks may require specialist knowledge, such as the consequences of being exposed to a particular substance. When assessing risk, emphasis should be placed on the severity of the consequences. Even if the likelihood of harm occurring is low, the consequences may be such that the risk is unacceptable. When assessing the consequences, luck should never be a factor. If, for example, there is the risk that a loose part of a load might fall whilst someone is within the danger zone, then the consequences should be assessed on the assumption that the person will be hit.

Remember that the consequences may not be limited to those people directly involved in the work or in the immediate vicinity. For example, a swinging load could injure someone nearby. However, if it struck and fractured a pipe in a process plant, it could affect the entire neighbourhood or worse.

The level of detail in a risk assessment should be proportionate to the risk. Once assessed, insignificant risks can usually be ignored. So can risks arising from routine activities associated with life in general, unless the work actively compounds or significantly alters those risks. For some tasks the method statement should be formally prepared and written down so that it can be considered by everyone involved.

If there is no hazard, then there is no risk. The obvious way of eliminating the risk is therefore to remove the hazard, if possible. An example would be to ensure that any loose part of a load is secured. Using a purpose designed piece of lifting equipment, such as a lifting beam or a special clamp, may be much safer than trying to lift and manipulate a difficult load with general purpose slings and thereby reduce the risk to a more acceptable level.

Maintenance operations present their own hazards, including working at height and tools or materials falling. The risk can be eliminated by a safety net, cordoning off the danger area below, or attaching lanyards to tools. The hazard arising from tools and materials left behind on crane walkways and other overhead structures should not be overlooked. It may take months, but there is a high risk that sooner or later they will vibrate their way to the edge and fall.

When lifting equipment is used in adverse conditions, increasing the factor of safety by selecting equipment of a higher capacity and/or increasing the frequency of thorough examinations may control the risk.

It soon becomes evident that the correct approach is logical and hierarchical. If possible, remove the hazard; if it cannot be fully removed, reduce the risk to an acceptable level. The lifting plan for a simple routine operation can be very basic and unwritten. For a complex job it needs to be broken down into a series of operations and a method statement prepared for each one. Putting these together forms the method statement for the complete job. Every stage of each operation has to be addressed.

Some research is usually required. It is essential to know what the site conditions are like in order to organise the equipment and work procedures. For example, is it hot – cold – wet – difficult to access – restricted – noisy? Are there services or other processes in the area which might present a hazard? Is the lighting adequate? Is the floor or ground capable of sustaining any loads that might be imposed?

If the operation is on an unfamiliar site, a visit will usually be necessary to obtain sufficiently detailed information. If it is possible that site conditions can change, it is advisable to build in a method for varying the plan, by agreement with whoever is responsible for the site. The method statement should be agreed with all parties involved and a record kept of any safety induction meetings that are held.

Whether evaluating the method statements submitted by potential contractors or reviewing internal procedures, an understanding of the above, coupled with a little thought and common sense, should go a long way towards ensuring that the essentials are adequately covered.