How will ISO 45001 change health and safety?

27 April 2018 | By Sally Swingewood and Ant Burd

Illustration: Marcin Wolski

ISO 45001 is the new globally recognised standard for occupational health and safety – and its principles mean it is tailor-made for construction, say Sally Swingewood and Ant Burd.

Construction health and safety has been regulated by a plethora of schemes and standards which, while doing a decent job, can cause some confusion for companies unsure which one they should be using.

While organisations know there is one globally recognised standard for quality management – ISO 9001 – the lack of an occupational health and safety (OH&S) equivalent has created something of a vacuum in the industry. The recent publication of ISO 45001 will change that. 

ISO 45001 could have been tailor-made for the construction industry. This new standard, which replaces OHSAS 18001, not only aligns in structure and core requirements with ISO 9001:2015 (which will make implementation simpler and holistic management more effective), it mirrors many aspects of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 (CDM 2015).

The 2015 regulations place considerable emphasis on the OH&S responsibilities of the principal designer and client, but there is concern that this has not been taken on by those at the top, who often choose to use consultants to deal with safety instead.

If ISO 45001 becomes a standard expected and required of construction companies it will undoubtedly help to address this – with strong emphasis on the requirements and responsibilities of the highest-level decision-makers.

“Organisations have a responsibility to coordinate the relevant parts of the OH&S management system to all parties on site.”

“Context” is also at the heart of ISO 45001. This means that the standard is scalable and covers the many permutations of multiple contractors on single sites. It applies equally to large-scale organisations and SMEs.

Major improvements in OH&S performance in all parts of the supply chain can be achieved if the primary contractor takes on the two-way responsibility with its subcontractors.

Throughout the standard it is emphasised that workers of all types – subcontractors as well as direct employees – need to be involved in OH&S decisions which affect them and form an integral part of hazard identification and management of OH&S risks.

The standard recognises that the primary contractor can’t always control everything a subcontractor does, but that doesn’t mean the primary contractor is let off the hook, either. There is a responsibility to consider and reduce hazards which can arise that are beyond the organisation’s control, such as hazards arising from subcontractors’ activities.

Organisations have a responsibility to coordinate the relevant parts of the OH&S management system to all parties on site, and ensure that OH&S consideration is an integral part of the procurement process.

Managing health

ISO 45001 will also be an effective tool in managing health – particularly psychosocial health, such as stress – where the construction sector has room for improvement.

Much like the wider economy, the construction sector is changing: as new techniques and materials are introduced, skilled workers can find that they no longer have the necessary skills – or are deployed in a way that makes no sense.

Job insecurity and other factors are often contributing factors in an epidemic of stress-related conditions in the sector that urgently need to be better managed. ISO 45001 requires organisations to manage the psychosocial health of their employees with the same diligence as safety hazards.

According to the Health & Safety Executive, around 2.9% of workers in the construction sector in Great Britain are injured at work each year. This proportion is statistically significantly higher than the rate for workers across all industries (1.9%).

To achieve conformity to ISO 45001, organisations must undergo an independent assessment including a rigorous onsite audit covering all the requirements of the standard.

Those requirements include demonstrating leadership around health and safety – top management need to develop, lead and promote a culture that supports the provision of a safe and healthy workplace. This includes risk-based thinking, as well as participation and consultation of decision-makers and workers. 

This third-party verification will help businesses to provide a safe and healthy workplace for workers and other people, reduce work-related injury and ill-health as well as demonstrate to customers and stakeholders that they are continually improving OH&S performance and enhancing organisational resilience.

Use of this new standard will make a difference to OH&S performance for organisations of all shapes and sizes.

Sally Swingewood is lead programme manager for OH&S and Ant Burd is head of built environment at BSI

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