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       Hazards special online report, December 2014
Brutish Standards: Unaccountable standards bodies bid to privatise safety laws
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 a British Standards Institute chaired international committee, warns Sharan Burrow of the global union confederation ITUC, 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.

PRIVATE GRIEF  The proposed standard on safety management being prepared by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) is a barely veiled attempt to privatise safety regulation, the TUC has warned. More.

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 45001 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 out of the around 5,000 ISO standards under development, 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.

Failing the standard test

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 45001, 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 [£25] – 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 said workers, the “primary stakeholders” when it drafts workplace health and safety standards, were “nearly invisible” in the July draft. ISO leadership hit the delete key nearly every time the word “workers” appeared. “Worker protection” was another casualty, with “their protection and participation” downplayed.

“Worker participation,” ILO warned, was 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 got 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 was 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 didn’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 preferred 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 was acting as censor.

ISO wrong it hurts

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. No more than 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 July draft had been, 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 made 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 alleged that BSI, which is coordinating the standard-making process, was urging national standards bodies to ignore the concerns raised by ILO and others, and press ahead with the fatally flawed ISO draft.

No OK for ISO for now

ISO had anticipated that a vote backing the draft standard that closed on 18 October 2014 would be a formality. Most observers – including those opposed to the standard – thought there was no chance it would be blocked. Committee chair BSI, the UK representative, voted yes.

But standards bodies worldwide had by then been 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 wouldn’t work.   

And enough, including big hitters like the standards bodies from the US, France, Germany, Sweden and Japan, listened. The draft failed to secure the necessary two-thirds majority vote. In total 29 national standards agencies voted yes, 17 voted no and 1 abstained.

Instead of proceeding towards its end of 2016 implementation deadline, the draft must now be reviewed and voted on again. This means the proposed standard has been delayed, but is certainly not as yet defeated.

The pressure on national standards bodies must be maintained. ISO 45001 would effectively privatise health and safety standards and undermine existing national and international laws and standards.

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



ISO wants to ‘privatise’ safety standards

The proposed standard on safety management being prepared by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) is a barely veiled attempt to privatise safety regulation, the TUC has warned.

The most recent draft of the standard, being steered through by a working group chaired by the British Standards Institute (BSI), had mentions of “workers” and “worker participation” almost entirely excised.

TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson commented: “We need strong standards on health and safety but we have ones already. These were developed by the International Labour Organisation and agreed with unions, employers and governments worldwide. They put workers and worker involvement at the heart of any standards.”

He warned: “The attempt by ISO, led by the British standards body BSI, to develop separate standards which were not wanted by either employers’ or workers’ representatives, amounts to the privatisation of health and safety regulation. The unelected standards bodies, most of which have no involvement of people who actually understand the world of work, are simply trying to develop a product that they can market and make large sums of money certifying.”

Standards are big earners for the national standards bodies. BSI charges £490 plus vat per person for a one day introduction to OHSAS 18001 Occupational Health and Safety, the BSI standard it says it is “envisaged” will be replaced by ISO 45001. If you decide to go for the standard, there are application fees, certification fees and auditing costs. If you want to stay certified, more costs accrue.

Robertson said: “I do not see anything in the current proposals which will drive up standards.” Instead, he said, they could undermine resources like the Health and Safety Executive’s well-established and well used, respected and free to download guide, Managing for health and safety, HSG65.

BSI had been certain the ISO standard would meet its 2016 implementation deadline. But it fell to BSI’s Charles Corrie to announce the draft “was not approved” so the BSI-run ISO committee “will now need to review the comments submitted and prepare a revised draft, before considering the next steps to be taken in the development of this standard.”

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Brutish Standards

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 a British Standards Institute chaired international committee, warns Sharan Burrow of the global union confederation ITUC, is far from good.

Failing the standard test
ISO wrong it hurts
No OK for ISO for now
Related story
ISO wants to ‘privatise’ safety standards

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