Duncan Spencer on ... meeting standards

Head of advice and practice, IOSH

IOSH’s head of advice and practice offers his views on continuous improvement

I have always been sceptical about the implementation of systems for meeting ISO or British Standards. It often seems that the focus is on compliance with the system and the generation of paper rather than developing true safety standards on the ground.

I am mindful of a story I once read of a company that had embarked on the road to compliance with BS 8800. The company had two sites with about 300 people working on each. It spent tens of thousands of pounds on external pre-audits and formal audits, consultancy advice, buying document management software to handle the burgeoning paperwork, and training 30 internal auditors and 30 risk assessors. It recognised that the system had grown so large that it had to audit half of it one year and the other half the next. When asked for an example of how its investment had improved safety the answer was that oxyacetylene bottles had been fitted more securely to workshop benches. It makes you wonder whether for only the price of a cup of tea and a biscuit with the technicians, the same result could have been realised.

Why can our profession be so reticent to keep it simple? In my experience, too much paper does have an adverse effect on safety standards. 

Suddenly managers knew from their local risk registers which risks to focus on


When I worked for a leading housing association there were more than 30 policies relating to safety and health. The responsibility information was so complex that managers in the satellite units could not make sense of it all. So what did they do? What any busy manager would do: apply their own judgement and hope for the best! In real terms the policies became useless.

When I arrived at Waitrose I inherited a risk assessment system that generated more than 750 risk assessments for a typical supermarket. If the hazard could be conceived, or if a local authority enforcement officer thought it was a good idea, new risk assessments were added to the list. In relative terms supermarkets are not dangerous places.

There are some hazardous operations of course, but once you get past workplace transport, manual handling and slips and trips, operationally there isn’t much to worry about. A new risk assessment process was introduced that slashed the number of risk assessments to around 50 (initially). They were rated to allow prioritisation. This had a dramatic effect. Suddenly managers knew from their local risk registers which risks to focus on. The result was that public and employee litigation claims were reduced by one-third in less than a year, saving the business millions.

In a climate where our operational colleagues are wrestling with constant market change and strong competition, OSH professionals need to think carefully about the bureaucracy they create. If it is complex, if it is unwieldy and difficult to understand, the needs of the operation will always prevail. If OSH is to achieve true operational integration and not be seen as a burdensome extra, the profession needs to keep it simple, flexible and agile. The OSH professional needs to build a greater affinity with the pressures that their managers and employees face. 

Thank goodness the guidance for ISO 45001 suggests that continuous improvement includes simplification.


Duncan Spencer is head of advice and practice, IOSH. 

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  • I cannot agree more. Goo

    Permalink Submitted by Helga Koch on 25 October 2019 - 10:09 am

    I cannot agree more. Good intentions, tons of risk assessments and failure to identify significant risks often go together.

  • An excellent concept

    Permalink Submitted by Jonathan Eades on 5 November 2019 - 04:54 am

    An excellent concept and one that is of particular interest and close to my heart, the challenge remains in convincing others that simplification is the best option, to some more remains compliant. Thank you for the thought!

  • I have been saying this

    Permalink Submitted by Michele Jarvis on 28 October 2019 - 04:40 pm

    I have been saying this for years, keep it simple, concise and holistic the result is less confusion and less stress on staff as they can see the way forwards.
    For those of a certain age remember TQM!


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