ISO is failing the standard test

Standards underpinning safety management at work should be a good thing, right? Right – but only if they are good ones. And the draft standard cooked up by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO), warns ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow, is far from good.

When the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) decided in 2013 to proceed with its own international standard for an Occupational Health and Safety Management System – ISO 45001 - it knew there were sensitivities.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) – which “gives an equal voice to workers, employers and governments to ensure that the views of the social partners are closely reflected in labour standards and in shaping policies and programmes” - had earlier made clear the far less transparent ISO shouldn’t be treading on its toes. Unions led by ITUC were similarly alarmed, and objected forcibly to ISO’s intrusion.

ISO, after all, does not have an expert mandate in occupational health and safety, and it doesn’t have to listen to those who have. Its membership is restricted to national standards bodies. These bodies at national level might allow unions and employers a say but they are, like ISO, constituted to set standards for “consumers.” The British Standards Institute (BSI), which chairs and provides the secretariat for the ISO 45,001 standard, has about 10,000 members, few of whom will have worker safety on their wishlist.

ISO, all the same, says its standards are developed using a “consensus-based approach and comments from stakeholders are taken into account.” But there are limits. ITUC ‘liaises’ currently on just two draft ISO standards, on safety management and sustainable procurement. The International Organisation of Employers (IOE) similarly liaises on two standards, safety management and human resource management.

IOE, the global employers’ body, notes drafts of ISO standards are “copyright protected” and “observer organisations such as IOE, ILO and ITUC can make comments but do not have voting rights whereas the national committee representatives do.” Employers and unions - the two key representative groups involved in occupational health and safety management and labour-related issues – remain pretty exotic and rarely consulted species in its decision-making processes.
Getting the standard-making process underway took an August 2013 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between ISO and ILO that required ISO to “respect and support” the provisions of ILO standards, not run counter to them. “In case of conflict” the ILO standards would trump the ISO draft, which would need to be reworked accordingly. With this agreement, work could begin towards the end of 2016 implementation deadline.

Only ISO’s foray into workplace safety standards didn’t live up to the agreement. The 1 July 2014 first draft of the ISO standard 45,001, a clearly exasperated ILO believed, “does not respect and support international labour standards.” Instead the priced draft – you can have a peek if you hand ISO a generous 38 Swiss Francs - is “at odds with international norms and many national laws,” including existing and government-ratified ILO standards. Not unreasonably, ILO called on ISO to “fulfil the mutual commitment” in the MOU.

High on the list of concerns shared by ILO and ITUC is ISO’s promotion of a “behaviour-based approach”, replacing responsible occupational health management with a blame-the-worker system. Behavioural safety doesn’t resolve workplace health and safety problems, it buries them. It finds workforce scapegoats, not management solutions.

But ISO doesn’t just want to blame workers; it wants to near enough eliminate any mention of them.

ILO says workers, the “primary stakeholders” when it drafts workplace health and safety standards, “are nearly invisible in the current draft.” ISO leadership hit the delete key nearly every time the word “workers” appeared. “Worker protection” is another casualty, with “their protection and participation” downplayed.
“Worker participation,” ILO warns, has been relegated to “a subsidiary and even optional role at the discretion of management,” contravening an explicit earlier agreement of the full drafting committee. A requirement for worker participation disappeared completely from an annex on the essential commitments to be included in an occupational health and safety policy.

The recognised role of “workers’ representatives” in delivering safer, healthier workplaces also gets the ISO treatment, with all but one reference to their involvement diluted with a “where appropriate” bolt-on. Just to make sure you know the workers’ voice is not important, the ISO leaders contained these “representatives” inside parentheses. “Safety committees” also got the (bracket) treatment.
Gone too from the draft is the internationally recognised and legally enshrined primary responsibility of the employer for workplace safety, with a reference to “management responsibility” also cut out. Text supporting the hierarchy of controls, with elimination of risks at the top of the list, has been doctored too. A ‘plan, do, check, act’ model added to the draft doesn’t include a plan for workers doing the job to do anything other than be the passive recipients - and sometimes, inevitably, victims - of management decisions.

Under ISO’s new standard, company management would have absolute control combined with zero responsibility. It is an approach at odds with modern safety laws and all accepted and effective occupational health and safety management practice. The experts advising ISO knew that. But forget consensus; ISO is acting as censor.

ILO occupational health and safety standards aren’t perfect, but a process of open and informed discussion between governments, employers and unions means issues like responsible management approaches and worker participation are not in dispute. Behavioural safety is off the agenda. This is because all parties aren’t only involved in the discussion, they are involved in the decision. ISO could learn a lot from that.
The reason ISO could blunder its way to such a lamentable draft stems from two factors. The first is the absence of tripartite government-union-employer involvement in the ISO committees formulating the draft. It’s an approach ISO accepted at the outset was “critical”, then promptly ignored. Only four of 83 experts involved in the working group hammering out the draft are from workers’ organisations.

The second problem is that ISO isn’t listening anyway. The current draft text presented was, to the extreme consternation of the ILO and ITUC, modified significantly and unilaterally by ISO, changing or undermining swathes of the content agreed with experts and ILO.

ISO’s self-proclaimed “consensus” approach was damaged by its failure to respect the agreement with ILO, and discredited by its we-know-best attempts to bulldoze through a standard opposed by anyone with a direct interest in occupational health and safety management systems. It makes the process pointless. It also makes the product meaningless at best, and very damaging at worst.

When it comes to workplace safety standards, damaging is a big deal. Damaging means more unsafe workplaces, more unhealthy workplaces and many more workplace casualties.

Insiders are concerned that BSI, which is coordinating the standard-making process, is urging national standards bodies to ignore the concerns raised by ILO and others, and press ahead with the current fatally flawed ISO draft.

There’s still time to do something about it. Voting by ISO members on whether the current draft ISO standard should proceed ends on 18 October. Your national standards body could make a difference – and not just by saying ‘no’ to the standard.

ISO must be made painfully aware that a standard that ignores the critical role of affected parties in its design and implementation, which undermines ILO standards already in place and which could give an ISO stamp of approval to blame-the-worker systems just won’t work.

This isn’t about a piece of paper, it is about workers. ISO would do well to remember that.