An occupational health and safety management system (OHSMS) provides a framework for managing your occupational health and safety responsibilities so they become more efficient and more integrated into overall business operations. With no clear international choice, a race to produce a primary occupational health and safety management system has developed in recent years. This has led to confusion. Many potential OHSMS implementers ask: What are the options and how do they differ? Others wonder if ISO, the International Organization for Standardization, will choose a standard as the framework for a generic ISO OHSMS.

Waiting on ISO

Following the success of ISO 9001:2000 (quality) and ISO 14001:1996 (environmental management) systems, many companies have been waiting on ISO to name an international OHSMS of choice. Two previous votes to develop British Standard’s BS 8800:1996 Guide to Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems into an ISO guideline standard failed. This non-auditable standard is a guide to placing and integrating an OHSMS within an organization.

At the most recent vote in 2000, ISO members voted 29 in favor and 20 against making BS 8800 an ISO standard. Requiring two-thirds of members in favor to pass, the attempt fell four votes short. Another vote is not currently scheduled, but industry predictions see a third attempt successfully passing.

Critics of an international OHS standard contend that a sufficient number of OHSMSs have already been developed. They add that the process of meeting ISO 14001’s environmental requirements sufficiently forces organizations to address health and safety.

But supporters think that the ISO members voting against an international OHSMS are trying to avoid the work required to implement a publicly recognized system. Many organizations have already written and implemented company-specific OHSMSs.

OHSAS 18001:1999

By 1999, British Standard’s sister company, BSI Management Systems, decided to stop waiting for ISO to make the next move. The world’s largest management systems registrar, BSI Management Systems collaborated with other international registrars and global occupational health and safety experts to develop a standard that met the needs of the global community in favor of an ISO OHSMS. With a goal of providing an expert management system to smoothly integrate with ISO 9001 and ISO 14001, OHSAS 18001:1999 was released. The first certifiable “specification” OHSMS, it features “shall statements” that require interested parties to meet certain objectives. OHSAS 18002:2000 was later published as “Guidelines for the implementation of OHSAS 18001.”

As a certification standard, OHSAS 18001 emphasizes continual improvement through continuing assessments. Certification is proof to customers and potential customers that an OHSMS meeting all of a standard’s “shall statements” is in place and has been audited by an accredited, independent, third-party registrar.

All OHSMS standards, including certification standards, are currently voluntary. Certification includes oversight of how top management operates its OHSMS, and that an organization can control risk while improving performance. After certification is achieved, continuing assessments are held every six months to ensure a working OHSMS is still in place. Measurements set at the initial audit are reassessed during each visit and recommendations for improvement are offered. OHSAS 18001 requires impartial and objective auditors.

Due to the similar number format, OHSAS 18001:1999 is occasionally referred to as ISO 18001. This is incorrect. OHSAS 18001 is an international management system, but ISO was not involved in its development.

ILO-OSH 2001

Based on the 2000 vote against a standard from the BS 8800 guidelines, ISO agreed not to pursue developing an international OHSMS with the International Labor Organization (ILO).

The ILO continued the development work and published its Guidelines on Occupational Safety and Health Management Systems in 2001. ILO-OSH is intended for use as a template for developing OHSMSs.

The two prime objectives of the ILO-OSH Guidelines are to:

  • assist countries in the establishment of a national framework for occupational health and safety management systems;
  • provide guidance to individual organizations regarding the integration of OH&S elements into their overall policy and management arrangements.

Developed at the same time, with ISO 14001 as a base point, ILO-OSH 2001 and OHSAS 18001 have no significant differences in their individual organization OHSMS guidelines. They are so similar that if an organization’s management system fully complies with OHSAS 18001, it will also be compatible with ILO’s Guidelines.

The significant divide between OHSAS 18001 and ILO-OSH 2001 is that the ILO does not support certification auditing. In line with its labor emphasis, ILO-OSH 2001 is focused on workers. OHSAS 18001 is directed toward a broader group, defined in the standard as all “interested parties.” The ILO-OSH 2001 Guidelines recommend an impartial and objective auditor review the implementing organization’s OHSMS, but do not require it.

OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program

OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) has been designating work sites as “Star,” “Merit,” or “Demonstration” status since 1982. The Star Program is for work sites that have successfully implemented their occupational safety and health management system and achieved injury and illness rates below the industry average. Merit is designated for sites that have a goal to achieve their industry Star requirements within three years. Demonstration recognizes work sites that address unique safety and health issues. Sites that pass their initial review must submit annual self-evaluations and undergo periodic onsite reevaluations to remain in the VPP program.

Created to promote effective work site-based safety and health, VPP has rapidly grown in recent years. VPP status is not achieved by implementing a particular standard. OSHA’s VPP is recognition of outstanding occupational health and safety performance over an extended period of time. The average VPP member is 52 percent below industry benchmarks for illness and injury. The benchmarks are set according to Bureau of Labor Statistics industry averages.

VPP representatives consider any OHSMS to be complementary to the designation process. OSHA supports all activity that aims to improve workforce occupational health and safety. Recognition as a VPP member impresses customers, provides shortcuts around extensive government OHS paperwork, and results in lower insurance premiums. As a federal government program, VPP is not available outside the United States.

The ANSI Z10 committee

Getting in the race late, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) has been hard at work in the “Z10” committee to produce a national OHSMS for the United States. Using the ILO-OSH 2001 template, ANSI and approximately 50 committee representatives have been meeting since February 2001 to design an OHSMS. This year a Z10 draft will circulate for review, with an expected final published in early to mid-2005.

The Z10 committee includes power players from industry (GE, Alcoa), labor (AFL-CIO), government (OSHA), and associations (National Association of Manufacturers, Voluntary Protection Program Participants’ Association).

The committee’s stated objective is to “develop a standard of management principles and systems to help organizations design and implement deliberate and documented approaches to continuously improve their occupational health and safety performance.” If OHSAS 18001 and ILO-OSH 2001’s individual organization guidelines already accomplish this objective, why go to the trouble of writing another? The answer is heavily political.

With the likely development of an ISO standard, the OHSMSs at the international forefront will have the most influence over the final version. The Z10 committee is an opportunity for U.S. organizations to offer guidelines that are best for American industry. An ANSI OHSMS also could be used as a model for future OSHA regulations requiring complete or partial OHSMS implementation.

Decision time

An organization’s OHSMS choices include to certify or not to certify, to attempt to obtain VPP status or not (U.S. only), to follow a single country’s national OHSMS or an international standard, and to integrate an OHSMS with other in-company management systems or to have their occupational health and safety system stand alone. These preferences are up to great debate and individual preference, but the clear choice is to select a recognized management system that will best support business needs and worker safety.

SIDEBAR: Web links

For further information on the occupational health and safety management systems addressed in this article, visit:

  • (OHSAS 18001 and BS 8800);
  • vpp/index.html (VPP);
  • english/protection/safework/health/index.htm (ILO-OSH 2001);
  • (ANSI’s Z10 committee)