ASSE: Avoiding the Pitfalls of OHS Management Systems

June 20, 2005
The most successful occupational health and safety management systems (OHSMS) focus on safety-critical activities and engage workers and managers in the process, Lawrence Waterman, president of the U.K.-based Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), told health and safety stakeholders at a June 14 session of the American Society of Safety Engineers' Safety 2005 conference in New Orleans.

His session, titled "Why Do People Yawn When You Say 'Systems?' The Global Perspective on Getting Organized," discussed why, for many people, OHSMS conjure images of bureaucracy, gratuitous paperwork and all the worst things associated with company safety policies and procedures.

He prefaced his remarks by explaining that the title of the session is an "advertisement" for OHSMS but also a reminder of the ways in which the concept of systems, in general, "turns people off" -- even as businesses in the United States, once the biggest source of resistance to OHSMS, warm up to the idea that a global template for "organizational discipline is good for business."

Being aware of those potential turn-offs is crucial to the overall success of a business's OHSMS, Waterman explained.

He illustrated his point by asserting that, as safety professionals, "we often think of ourselves as high priests" of a complex religion of compliance standards, rules and procedures. That kind of thinking is exactly what can sink a company's OHSMS, as many OHSMS make people yawn because of their complexities. For example, he said there have been horror stories of companies whose OHSMS require safety managers to take courses on how to complete the mountains of paperwork created by such programs.

"We need to remember: Keeping things simple isn't talking down to people. It isn't disrespect," Waterman said. "It's making the information available so people can use it quickly."

What Is an OHSMS?

In simple terms, Waterman described OHSMS as empty filing cabinets. Each company can insert files and information that are specific to their business into those filing cabinets, but OHSMS create a common "framework" in which to organize that information, much like Windows does for computer users.

The main components of an OSHMS, according to Waterman, are a mission statement that includes a mechanism for management control and accountability; and arrangements for implementation, monitoring (including audit) and continual improvement.

"Systematizing these arrangements removes the potential arbitrariness of processes developed by a few individuals and provides an environment in which the whole work force can be involved," Waterman said. " … Think of all the ridiculous, stupid accidents that you've heard of that led to people dying or being seriously injured. Many of them were the result of precisely the lack of a systematic approach."

In other words, OHSMS are a replacement of the "make-it-up-as-you-go-along" health and safety management practices of the past, Waterman explained. The on-the-fly health and safety management of the past is insufficient to meet the more complex EHS problems of today's workplace, where the relationship of the cause to the problem is much "harder to pin down," according to Waterman.

"[OHSMS] are as much about anticipating problems as they are recognizing them when they're right in front of you," Waterman said.

One of the main benefits of OHSMS is their ability to document good practices and best practices -- which then can be used as a resource as EHS issues are identified -- and to drive out bad practices. OHSMS are particularly helpful in times of change -- whether it's the opening of a new plant or simply a change in shift schedules -- because they offer a system for identifying EHS issues associated with the change and for managing those issues, Waterman said.

What Are the Risks of OHSMS?

While the ideal OHSMS promises reductions in workplace illnesses and injuries through its structured approach to health and safety, for many the concept "conjures images of bureaucracy and a failure to engage with people, whether they are customers, workers, managers or directors," Waterman asserted.

This negative perception can be traced to several sources, including the quality management standards from which OHSMS descended as well as the general perception of health and safety in the workplace. As for the latter, Waterman noted that both the United Kingdom and the United States are experiencing a similar tension between the agencies that promulgate and enforce safety standards and businesses that see health and safety as a financial burden and an infringement on their freedom.

At the same time, some health and safety professionals are seen as pedantic bureaucrats -- "jobsworths," as Waterman put it -- who "tell people what to do rather than ask them questions" and "hide behind jargon and legal quotations."

While these perceptions are obstacles to an OHSMS succeeding in the workplace, according to Waterman, they also provide some clues as to the best ways to craft an effective OHSMS.

"The necessity is striking a balance that enables us to flourish whilst protecting decent standards of health and safety," Waterman said.

Safety Manager as 'Enabler'

As a safety professional, in most cases, will be the point person in the implementation of an OHSMS, much of Waterman's advice for circumventing the risks of OHSMS focused on how safety professionals define their role in the workplace.

Safety professionals, he said, should view themselves as enablers. In this definition, safety managers:

  • Assume that their job is to help workers do their jobs safely and healthily.
  • Safety managers see laws as minimum standards, not a guide to action.
  • Safety professionals ask lots of questions and offer simple advice that is focused on explaining the process of risk management.

In this definition, safety professionals are not the owners of an OHSMS -- the entire business is, Waterman explained. This avoids the perception that an OHSMS was implemented just to benefit the safety professional. It also helps create a workplace in which workers become the same "passionate practitioners of safety and health that we are."

"Safety professionals are better and best when they serve the needs of the organizations they work for," Waterman said.

Detailing the characteristics of an effective OHSMS, Water said a good program:

  • Focuses only on safety-critical activities.
  • Emphasizes processes that engage people rather than a set of rules.
  • Encourages managers and workers to participate.
  • Makes the OHSMS the "servant and not the master."
  • Emphasizes the Act, Plan, Do and Check approach.
  • Self-tests by asking if the OHSMS would be effective for a small business.

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