Are Occupational Health & Safety Management Systems Still Working?

As the work to develop the management system standard for occupational health and safety (OHSAS 18001) into an international standard continues, the question still remains whether occupational health & safety (OH&S) management systems are achieving their aims?  

With over 127 countries currently using OHSAS 18001 and equivalent standards, there’s a worldwide need to harmonize health and safety management systems using an international standard and share best practices. Originally created by BSI, the business standards company, OHSAS 18001 was first published in 1999 and is now being adopted by the International organization for Standardisation (ISO) as a best practice framework for identifying and controlling health and safety risks, reducing potential accidents, aiding legislative compliance and improving overall performance.

Results from a BSI survey completed over five years ago identified that users of OHSAS 18001 saw an impressive return on investment after a period of 2 to 3 years of rigorous assessment and improvement initiatives.  The research was extended and repeated in a poll at the Safety and Health Expo 2014 in July 2014. This time investigating the changing perceptions of health and safety as more organizations strive to manage and reduce occupational health and safety risks and hazards in the workplace.

OHSAS 18001 is still valid and with the update of HSG65 to a similar Plan-Do-Check-Act format, it is now time to review performance of OH&S management systems again. Findings from the first survey identified that users of management systems identified bureaucracy and an overburden of paperwork as being detrimental to the effective management of OH&S.  At the time, indications were that users were not aware of the requirements for documentation to be flexible based on risk and competence.  The latest poll found that the negative perception surrounding health and safety is unfounded. It identified that the majority (67%) of respondents did not perceive paperwork and bureaucracy to be detrimental and that the benefits of effective management outweighed the burden. Interestingly, 93% of respondents believed that the increased focus on health and safety over the past decade has made a difference to their business. 

The recent poll also identified that health and safety management systems are still being utilised within the workplace, albeit in a small way.  It found that in order to reduce the risk to their employees, 37% of respondent’s businesses are using OHSAS 18001 to help them to manage their OH&S risks.  The poll also identified that only 35% of respondents are using HSG65 as an aid to OH&S management system compliance and improvement.  This itself leaves a gap where a structured approach to risk management could be beneficial.  It also identified that worryingly, only 35% of respondents have implemented internal health and safety policies and procedures, and only 31% have provided training to their staff; highlighting that there is certainly still room for improvement.

The Institute for Work and Health1 (IWH) researched the benefits of OH&S management systems by investigating different country’s approaches – namely where there exist voluntary schemes (such as HGG65 and OHSAS 18001) and mandatory requirements set by government. The studies, whilst limited to a small cohort of organizations identified that whether voluntary or mandatory management systems requirements are in place, improvement to the management of OH&S can be achieved through a structured approach to risk identification, management and improvement. 

With the evolution of HSG65 into the Plan-Do-Check-Act approach of OHSAS 18001 and the planned evolution of OHSAS 18001 to ISO 45001, it is hoped that wider adoption will enhance the planning for, and, active management and improvement of occupational health and safety. Encouragingly, the poll found that over three quarters (76%) felt that internationalization of the current standard for health and safety will have a positive impact on its adoption.

1. The Effectiveness of Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems: A Systematic Review.

By Jalal Mardana, Training and Professional Services BSI MEA