W is for worker involvement

One requirement of the draft international standard ISO 45001 (DIS2, 2017) is for top management to ensure “the organisation establishes and implements a process for consultation and participation of workers” in the OSH management system. The previous draft (DIS1, 2016) expected management to show that they were “ensuring [my italics] active participation of workers and, where they exist, workers’ representatives”. Perhaps the change reflects that, as with horses and water, workers can be invited to the table, but cannot be made to participate.

Image credit: © iStock/chatchaisurakram

Clause 5.4 of ISO 45001 gives detailed instructions on measures that would show compliance with the participation requirements. These include making available the time, training and resources necessary for participation, and giving workers access to safety and health information. Equally important is the onus on top management to find out why people do not participate and then to remove the barriers. A note adds that barriers may include “failure to respond to worker inputs or suggestions”.

So, though participation includes the idea of communication and consultation, it has to go one step further and show workers that something happens as a result of their participation.

ISO 45001 defines consultation as “seeking views before making a decision” – such that views, once sought, might be ignored by box-ticking managers. By contrast, it defines participation as “involvement in decision making”.

The benefits of participation were recognised long ago. In a 1918 report, the British chief inspector of factories and workshops stated: “If a real reduction in accidents is to take place, it can be effected only by the joint effort of employers and workers.”

Despite this, it took until 1977 to produce any legislation requiring that joint effort. Even then, the law applied only to representatives in unionised workplaces. The 1996 Health and Safety (Consultation with Employees) Regulations extended the requirement for consultation to all workplaces, but the focus was on conferring over proposed changes – not on how to improve the status quo.

Although a note to the definitions in ISO 45001 explains that participation and consultation should involve engagement of worker representatives, elsewhere engagement is seen as a step beyond both consultation and participation. The Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) 2012 Step Change to Safety programme defined worker engagement as the “active participation of everyone in the workforce in the management and improvement of safety. When engaged, workers feel as able as managers to improve safety where they work.”

Participation, therefore, must be active, which suggests a process no longer driven by management alone but based on continuous engagement, with ideas and actions flowing around the organisation. Engagement must also involve everyone, not just the health and safety committees and worker representatives mentioned in ISO 45001, and not just by responding to the questions that managers ask. Step Change in Safety explains: “Workforce engagement means that all workers participate in and challenge how safety is managed where they work.”

A forward-looking organisation seeks to engage workers around ideas and decisions that affect all aspects of the business. Engaging for Success, a UK report produced in 2009 for what is now the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (bit.ly/2gZFrGr) made the case for worker engagement, not just to improve safety, but to increase commercial success.

Leading Health and Safety at Work, guidance by the HSE and the Institute of Directors (bit.ly/2h2VIuh), emphasises effective downward communication as a feature of strong leadership and upward communication as part of worker involvement.

However, engagement should be more than a transfer of information through layers of management in both directions – it should be an ongoing conversation, in which voices at all levels are heard directly and are responded to. Worker participation might be enough for your ISO 45001 certificate, but worker engagement will ultimately reap more benefits.

But how will you know when you get there? Engaging for Success quotes Lord Currie, former chair of the Office of Communications, saying: “You sort of smell it, don’t you, that engagement of people as people? What goes on in meetings, how people talk to each other. You get the sense of energy, engagement, commitment, belief in what the organisation stands for.” 



Bridget Leathley is a freelance health and safety consultant, providing risk management support in facilities, retail and office environments.  She delivers face-to-face safety training including IOSH and bespoke courses, and contributes to e-learning courses through evaluations and design work.  She has been writing for health and safety publications since 1996.  

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