Welcome to the world of health and safety, which, for many people, can invoke extreme reactions. Just a mention of the phrase “health and safety”, like “political correctness”, can bring on an attack of eye-rolling and teeth-sucking. We have all read the absurd (and, yes, sometimes fake) stories of health and safety “gone mad”, from one UK school’s alleged banning of the traditional game conkers – involving chestnuts on strings – to bans on yoyos in playgrounds and kettles in offices.

Many of these stories often turn out to be apocryphal; urban myths that have gained currency over the years as the result of an overzealous interpretation of the health and safety rules and the fear of being sued.

Sleeping on the job

All businesses and institutions, of course, have a responsibility to provide their employees with a safe and healthy workplace. Examples here can provoke more eye-rolling. In some organizations and tech companies, sleep pods and nap rooms are becoming the norm, such as the dome-shaped nap rooms at the Beijing headquarters of Chinese Internet company Baidu, and the MetroNaps sleep pods at Google’s head office in California.

Over-indulgent? Perhaps. Most small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), indeed most companies in both the public and private sectors, would no doubt consider sleep pods a luxury they cannot afford. Then again, perhaps not. Increasingly, forward-looking companies are seeing the positive effects on the bottom line of recharging tired brain cells. Lawrence Epstein, a former president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, says in a Financial Times report on occupational health and safety in September 2017: “More and more, we’re seeing how sleep disorders affect work productivity, healthcare costs and workplace accidents. The cost of insomnia in the US is estimated to be over USD 100 billion when you add in reduced productivity, absenteeism and presenteeism [when employees are unproductive at work].”

According to a 2016 World Economic Forum report, Future of Healthy – How to Realize Returns on Health, companies such as Google have come to recognize that promoting a healthy work environment also promotes productivity, not to mention attracting – and keeping – talent. The report goes on to say: “Better employee health also lowers healthcare costs and, depending on local circumstances, pension costs, and avoids potential liabilities.”

Two female engineers working with robotic a arm.

Increasing productivity

A look at some figures underlines the message of why health and safety is so important. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), work-related accidents, injuries and diseases kill nearly 2.78 million every year. This obviously has a much wider impact on not only the organizations but also the wider economy as a whole, which has to carry the costs of early retirement, healthcare and a rise in insurance premiums. The ILO also claims that the economic burden of poor occupational safety and health practices is estimated at 3.94 % of global gross domestic product (GDP) each year.

Also in the Financial Times, Christa Sedlatschek, Director of EU-OSHA, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, writes: “The economic cost of work-related ill health and injuries is estimated to equate to 3 %-5 % of the EU’s GDP. Health and injuries are also responsible for about 4 000 avoidable deaths due to accidents and about 160 000 deaths due to work-related illness every year.”

With the rise of technology and artificial intelligence, one big challenge is the changing nature of work and the workplace. The Global Wellness Institute has highlighted the need to reskill workers for the new technologies that are making work “more fluid, adaptable and collaborative”. A Wellness at Work report by the institute states: “In order to survive and thrive in the future, businesses and organizations will need to harness the potential of wellness by aligning work environments and cultures with workers’ personal values, motivations and wellness needs.”

Worker on top of a very high transmission tower repairing the antenna.

Unity in collaboration

It is no surprise, therefore, that companies and institutions struggling to increase productivity, improve profitability and enhance workforce well-being should take a closer look at their occupational safety and health management systems. Over the years, confusion over national standards and proprietary certification schemes to address these issues eventually led to the Occupational Health and Safety Assessment Series (OHSAS) Project Group, an international collaboration, which spoke with one voice. The group drew together representatives from national standards bodies, academia, accreditation and certification bodies, and occupational safety and health institutions. The BSI Group, ISO’s member for the United Kingdom, provided the secretariat.

Trevor Dodd, who worked with BSI and represents the OHSAS Project Group, says OHSAS 18001 led to an improvement in commitment and involvement by senior management and better training and communication. This in turn led to a reduction in accident and incident rates. However, as the world becomes more complex and interconnected, occupational health and safety has also been moving with the times in the shape of a new ISO standard, ISO 45001, which will eventually replace OHSAS 18001. The new standard will bring even more effective management systems to organizations. Dodd says it will also help to end the “perception that, often, health and safety arrangements put in place are unnecessarily restrictive and not necessary when considering the risks involved” – and perhaps lead to less eye-rolling.

So, why the new standard? Dodd explains: “Implementing ISO 45001 makes perfect sense because it provides a framework for managing occupational health and safety risks in a proportionate and proactive way with the aim of providing safe and healthy workplaces that prevent work-related injury and ill health to workers and continually improving OH&S performance.” He adds that the key aspects of ISO 45001 that enable all this to be achieved are related to “leadership, consultation and participation of the workforce and processes for hazard identification, assessment of risks and opportunities together with resources, competence, operational control, performance evaluation and continual improvement”.

Embracing the challenges

The migration from one standard to the other will carry its own challenges. However, Marcus Long, Chief Executive at the Independent International Organization for Certification (IIOC), says that the work involved in putting together ISO 45001, through the collaboration of some of the world’s best health and safety brains, has produced a “fabulous” and “world-class” document that will deliver benefits to all involved.

He says that implementing the new standard will be easier for organizations that use other ISO management system standards – such as the ISO 9001 and ISO 14001 quality and environmental standards – as they have the same structure. He suggests that “the core of the world’s leading management system standard, ISO 9001, is the best advice to implementing the new standard: Plan-Do-Check-Act”.

Certified organizations have three years to move from OHSAS 18001 to ISO 45001 and Long cautions that time can be the greatest challenge. He urges organizations not to be complacent, saying: “Resources are finite so good planning will deliver the best results.”

Catherine Montagnon, of INRS, France’s National Institute for Research and Security for the prevention of occupational accidents and diseases, is Convenor of ISO/CASCO Joint Working Group 48, which is run in cooperation with project committee ISO/PC 283 on occupational health and safety. As well as being responsible for the development of technical specification ISO/IEC TS 17021-10, Competence requirements for auditing and certification of occupational health and safety management systems, which was published in conjunction with ISO 45001, she is Head of the French delegation in ISO/PC 283’s working group WG 1 set up for the development of ISO 45001. Montagnon explains that developing ISO 45001 has been a long, difficult challenge: “More than one hundred experts have been discussing, arguing, for five years, to come to an acceptable text.”

She believes that the new standard brings “strengthened measures to eliminate hazards and minimize risks according to a hierarchy of control”. However, she points out that certification alone will not lead to an improvement of health and safety in the workplace but to the commitment of top management in occupational health and safety performance. “The improvement of working conditions requires a global approach based on the strengthening of social dialogue and the involvement of workers at all levels. Workers and worker representatives should contribute to the identification of potential improvements, to risk assessment and should participate in the development and implementation of an action plan,” she says.

A construction worker reading blueprints.

A clearer message

Another benefit of the new standard, Montagnon says, is in its “broad definitions of workers and workplace and precise text on purchasing (contractors and outsourcing) that should really enable companies to procure health and safety workplaces and working conditions to every person working ‘for’ them”.

She cautions, however, that globalization and changing national economic structures make it difficult to “strengthen occupational health and safety culture all over the world”. She spells out the risks and opportunities: “The risk is a disparity and increasing discrepancies between countries. The risk is also an approach focused on the needs and expectations of well-represented countries (such as the US, Canada, Europe and ­Australia) and not aligned with the needs and expectations of other countries. The opportunity, however, is an occupational health and safety culture supported by new means of communication vectors and clear messages on a proven return on investment, as well as a standard that specifies internationally recognized requirements for an occupational health and safety management system.”

Long sums it up like this: “The maximum benefits of ISO 45001 will be gained by those organizations that implement the new standard seeking to make it work for their organization and not just to gain the certificate, however valuable that is.” So while sleep pods, free bowls of apples and Pilates classes may help, clearly, much more needs to be done. Migration to the new ISO  45001 is a huge step in the right direction.