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The Future in Focus

Listen to our podcast, where we share technical expertise and a fresh perspective on the Occupational Health & Safety standard, ISO 45001.

LRQA Podcast 1: Four years of ISO 45001.

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Four years of ISO 45001
WEDNESDAY 23 FEB 2022 09:00 ◦ 27 MINUTES

Chair of the ISO Technical Committee for Occupational Health & Safety Management and former LRQA colleague Martin Cottam reflects on the four years since ISO 45001, the management system for occupational health and safety, was published and shares some insight into the future of the ISO 45000 series.

You can listen to the podcast directly, where LRQA interviews Martin Cottam, our Group Technical Assurance & Quality Director, or you can read the transcript below.

How do you feel ISO 45001 has performed in the four years since its publication especially given how much the world of work has changed in that time?

Well my sense is that ISO 45001 has been well received by users and that its recognised as a step forward from OSHAS 18001 in a number of areas. I guess in particular at leadership, worker consultation and participation, and perhaps most particularly the requirements around context of the organisation and that emphasis that the management system needs to be tailored to really reflect the particular circumstances of each organisation.

Now the standard also benefits from alignment with the other ISO management system standards through the adoption of the Annex SL harmonised approach and that means of course it shares a common structure and identical high level text with widely adopted standards such as ISO 9001 for quality management and ISO 14001 for environmental management.

But yes, the Covid pandemic has had a significant impact on the world of work right across the globe and I’ve been encouraged by the fact that the framework of ISO 45001 is sufficiently generic and flexible to enable organisations to adapt their OHS arrangements to address the situations created by Covid. Indeed that framework itself based on the plan, do, check, act cycle and the emphasis on leadership, worker consultation and participation has really provided the means through which organisations could make those necessary changes effectively, evaluate the impact of those changes and then improve as necessary. And that closed loop of act, measure, move on and improve, of course has been so important in what has been a very dynamic situation with the Covid pandemic, very fast moving at times. And to me this has re-enforced my sense that an effective management system is not so much about compliance but about providing the organisation with capability and its that capability to adapt and to drive improvement which in turn I think contributes to resilience and to sustainability.

Now the pandemic of course has shone a particular spotlight on the issue of workers psychological health and safety and so 2021 really was the perfect time therefore for us to have completed and published ISO 45003, our guidance standard on managing psychosocial risks in the workplace. And I think this is an area where guidance was really needed both to help organisations better understand what ISO 45001 requires of them, but also to provide guidance on how to tackle those issues. Issues which have often tended to be neglected or dealt with only reactively. I think it will make a big difference to worker health and safety if organisations address workers psychological health and safety proactively, and just like we do for physical safety aim to eliminate hazards and minimise risks before harm occurs rather than focusing on rehabilitating workers after they have suffered harm.

Great and being very specific for a moment, what about remote working, how well does the ISO 45001 address that?

Well ISO 45001 defines a workplace as anywhere a worker needs to go or to be for work purposes recognising that the degree of control that the organisation has over that workplace may vary. So of course remote working is covered by that definition not least of course because remote working was a feature of some workers lives long before the pandemic and at the time when ISO 45001 was first being written.

But having said that, the amount of remote working brought it back by the pandemic and the fact that for many it became the only way of working and the fact that it was implemented almost over night in some cases due to national lockdowns, those things have all brought challenges both in terms of the physical work environment for some of those working remotely and the psychosocial impacts. And of course let’s remember it’s not just those working from home, there’s also been effects on those having to spend much more extended periods away from families, seafarers being one such affected group about which we’ve heard quite a lot in the media.

So ISO 45001 contains the requirement for the organisation to address remote working, its in meeting those requirements of course that the challenges come. 45001 provides the framework in which to do it, 45003 provides useful guidance. And given that we’re often talking about workplaces which are not under the control of the organisation it really falls to that element of consultation and participation which is so strongly emphasised in ISO 45001 to be that key element which brings success when trying to address remote working.

Are there any areas where you feel improvement is needed now or will be needed soon?

There’s one in particular. We’ve been recently quite concerned to see the results of some research carried out by ISO last year. The research actually was looking specifically at gender responsiveness across a number of ISO standards and they chose to include ISO 45001, but in fact the findings are really applicable much more broadly across all aspects of diversity and inclusion. And those results were actually not very positive and they came as something of a surprise to us in the technical committee response for ISO 45001 because we had discussed these issues quite frequently and we thought we had addressed them in the drafting of our documents.

But actually what the research highlighted was that the words we use to address inclusivity are often quite bland and generic and you’ll see phrases such as addressing the needs of all workers. Now often in earlier drafts of the standard, we provided much more specific examples and you would have seen references to considering the needs of older workers, pregnant women, younger workers, workers with disabilities, those much more specific points. But these have often been replaced with the much more generic phrase consider the needs of all workers in later iterations of the document partly with a view to making the standard a bit more compact. But what the research has shown us is that users don’t always think beyond their own experience and if something isn’t explicit in the standard its often overlooked and sometimes in fact examples are treated as definitive lists. And the result of all that is that when we use very bland and generic phrases many organisations rather miss the point or they interpret what we say quite narrowly and then in reality don’t end up really addressing the needs of all workers, and so if we’re going to get that point across more effectively, we’re going to need to use much more explicit language.

So what we’re doing right now is to revisit the language in the guidance standards that we’re currently developing and of course that may help if the guidance emphasises how to interpret these rather generic phrases and gives the examples which we’ve ended up not including in ISO 45001 itself. But we will ultimately also need to adjust the language of ISO 45001 when the opportunity comes to revise the standard. But in the meantime, we need to try and reinforce this important message through engagement with users and other interested parties including certification bodies just to remind people what those phrases mean and the need to think broadly about the implications of making sure that all worker needs are addressed.

What’s your view on the uptake of the ISO 45001 standard, is it matching your expectations?

I was looking at the data on this in preparation for this conversation and it’s really quite interesting. ISO reported the results of its most recent survey of ISO management system standard certification numbers just in the autumn of last year and actually it’s a snapshot of data which itself was taken on the 31st of December 2020. And of the several tens of ISO management system standards which specify requirements and that can be used for a basis for certification, ISO 45001 is now in third place after ISO 9001 for quality and 14001 for environment. And just to give you some sense of the numbers there, because there’s quite a gap between first, second and third. ISO 9001 the survey indicated there were 916,000 certificates globally covering around 1.3 million sites. For ISO 14001 there were 348,000 certificates covering 568,000 sites, so roughly half I would say very approximately. And then for 45001, 190,000 certificates covering 251,000 sites so again stepping down by quite a margin.

But the growth rates are also interesting because there’s been annual growth rate of 4% for ISO 9001 certification, 12% for 14001 for environment. The figure for ISO 45001 was 490% annual growth but of course you know the devils in the detail there. The prior year was very early in the transition period for certification to migrate from OHSAS 18001 to ISO 45001, so there were relatively few certifications at that point. Obviously, that’s changed hugely over the last twelve months, but interestingly the figures I’ve just been quoting certainly for 45001 they are still within the transition period and so I think we can reasonably expect some further growth in the subsequent months and we should see that through in next years survey figures.

But what I also hear from certifiers is that as well as the almost total migration of OHSAS certified organisations to ISO 45001 there are also significant numbers of organisations certifying their OHS management system for the very first time because there is now an ISO standard available and I think that’s a trend that will continue given that there are a number of factors I think currently which are increasing the focus on occupational health and safety in organisations. And I’m thinking here not just of the Covid pandemic which has been a factor, but I think equally the increasing profile of so called ESG considerations in business, that’s environment, social and governance, and an interest I think increasingly being taken in that for example by the investor community. And then I think there’s also a broader interest in resilience and in sustainability into which of course OHS obviously plays quite significantly to.

So when I look at numbers of certificates, I think I’m seeing steady progress but I’m also seeing a long way to go as I certainly believe that ultimately, we should expect to see at least as many organisations certified for OHS as a certified for environmental management which in turn would suggest we could expect to more or less double the number of certificates from where we are today.

But it’s really important for me to be clear that certainly from, as a standard writer this is not all about certification, its not only about certificate numbers because certification is only one option open to organisations who use the standard. As standard writers, we’re interested that organisations use the standard to help them improve their OHS performance, that’s the primary driver. Whether that means they certify at some point or chose never to certify is a different question, its just that its much more difficult for us to obtain data on how many organisations are making use of the standard without pursuing certification.

But there are certainly clear signs of a continuing growth of interest internationally for example, the standard has recently been adopted as a national standard in Jordan and because of that its now published in Arabic and I think that will have quite an impact on take up in the Middle East for example. The standard’s been adopted another example in Australia and New Zealand and that’s certainly leading to it now being sighted increasingly in tender requirements for some government contracts and referenced in legislation. But there are still quite a number of areas of the world particularly developing countries where there’s a lot more to do to raise awareness of ISO 45001 although there are some great efforts being made in some of those countries as we ourselves found as a standards committee when we last met face to face in Rwanda in Africa in 2019.

But I think our biggest challenge with uptake is with small and medium sized enterprises or organisations, the so called SME sector. The SME sector actually dominates the global economy and the organisations within it are rarely able to employee OHS specialists so they often struggle with OHS issues and also struggle knowing what help is available and they are often very unaware of the existence of standards. So our guidance is very often not available to them when actually we’re trying very hard to write it with them as part of our target audience.

I think its also fair to say though, that standards while claiming to be applicable to organisations of any size are often written in a language which actually in reality is more accessible to and more reflective of larger organisations and that’s for example why we as a standards committee published the so called ISO 45001 handbook, or to give it its proper title Practical Guide for Smaller Organisations. And its also why we have two members of the leadership team of our standards committee specifically focused on the needs of and engagement with those smaller organisations.

And in the same way, we’ve formed within our committee a developing country coordination group to help us ensure we reflect the needs of developing countries and support efforts to increase awareness and adoption of our standards in those countries. Because I think if we could make progress with engagement with and use of the standard both in developing countries generally and by smaller organisations, we really could have a huge impact in helping organisations to drive forward improvement in their OHS performance.

So what’s in the pipeline for TC 283?

Well we have three guidance standards currently under development. ISO 45002 is the first and that is a general guidance standard to help with implementation of the requirements of ISO 45001. So for those familiar with the previous OHSAS 18001 standard you’ll recall that there was an implementation guide OHSAS 18002, well this is more or less the equivalent thing here ISO 45002. That’s now reached draft international standard stage and is due for publication later this year. Now based on the hundreds of comments received on the draft international standard I think its more or less guaranteed that we will have one extra iteration and publish a so called FDIS or Final Draft International Standard and ballot that before, as the basis for the published version. So I think while we are hopeful, we can publish this year, I am guessing with that extra iteration to go through we’ll be talking about closer to the end of the year for that publication.

The other documents we are working on are not quite so far advanced. ISO 45004 is a guidance document on OH&S performance evaluation and that’s due to be published in 2024 so works at a much earlier stage still at the so called working draft stage. It will obviously then progress along the same path to a Draft International Standard and ultimately publication.

And our third standard currently being developed is ISO 45006 which is on preventing and managing infectious diseases in the workplace and that’s also on a trajectory to publish in 2024. I think that that one is probably progressing just that little bit faster than 45004 and its possible we might publish that in 2023 depending on the reaction and the comments received when we put the subsequent iterations out.

What can you tell us about whether and when ISO 45001 might be revised?

We have just received the results of a ballot of national standards bodies conducted late last year in which we asked them this very question, should we being work on the revision of ISO 45001, and somewhat surprisingly at least speaking from a personal perspective, a large majority of countries responded by asking us to leave the standard unchanged for the time being. And I was a little surprised by that in the sense that what we were consulting them about was beginning a revision process that was anyway likely to take three years and therefore was likely to result in publication of a revision of the standard no sooner than 2025 which we know would then be seven years after the original publication. So I had thought that there might be some appetite for us beginning that work but that’s not the case and we’ve been asked to pause a little longer.

Now of course we’ll respect what the national standards bodies have told us and we will be leaving the standard unchanged, confirmed is the technical term for that. But what we will also do and in fact what we are currently doing is balloting the formation of a working group to do some preliminary work to look at what a potential revision to the standard might look like and to do that work in the background over the next year or so. And the things that that group can do it will examine feedback from the national standards bodies some of which of course did respond saying that they thought a revision would be timely and suggesting areas where change maybe needed.

We’ll also be looking at feedback from our annual ISO 45001 user survey where respondents have told us things about which parts of the standard they feel work well, which parts are difficult to understand, we always ask the question are the requirements too onerous, are they not onerous enough, so we’ll be looking at that feedback. And I think the group may well also elicit feedback directly from users perhaps through a further survey and we’ll certainly make some use of social media I think to engage with users and see if we can get feedback on their thoughts on where change maybe needed.

We can also look of course at how we need to adjust the standard to reflect the latest version of the Annex SL harmonised structure and text common across all the ISO management system standards and look at how we adjust the language to address the ISO research on inclusivity which I described earlier. And that would, I think, all be good preparatory work to enable us at some future date to ask national standards bodies again whether its time to initiate a revision, perhaps this time presenting them with a draft to illustrate the sort of changes that we might be proposing or would consider.

And that work can also incorporate ideas from our task group which is exploring emerging themes and issues affecting OHS and its management and that’s looking at whether and to what extent our standards should be adjusted to make sure they address the OHS impacts arising from issues such as climate change, new technologies, demographic change in the workplace, quite significant, and also those blurring of boundaries of the workplace that we touched on earlier.

So in terms of timeframe, I think realistically the earliest that we might approach national standards bodies again with a question about possible revision of ISO 45001 will be in about 18 to 24 months’ time and so even if with the benefit of that preliminary work, we were able to do the subsequent development of a revised version of the standard a bit more quickly because we’ve done that preparatory draft, I think the earliest likely publication date for a revision of ISO 45001 is probably going to be 2026.