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What Is the Most Important Part of Your OHSMS?

Jan 11, 2021
Safety professional man in blue shirt reading an OHSMS standard at his desk in front of a teal background

An occupational health and safety management system (OHSMS) has many important parts. From terms and definitions to strategic considerations and tools for improvement, the OHSMS you use is a comprehensive resource for anticipating and mitigating workplace risks.

But perhaps the most important aspect of safety management systems is their mandate that leaders engage workers in safety.

ISO 45001, an OHSMS standard for global companies, defines employee engagement as “involvement in decision-making” and says organizations must “maintain a process for consultation and participation of workers at all applicable levels and functions.”

ANSI/ASSP Z10, an OHSMS standard enabling companies to manage interdependent core systems, has a section titled “Management Leadership and Employee Participation” with a definition of worker engagement that is similar to ISO 45001. The standard also includes Appendix C, “Encouraging Employee Participation,” which recommends many ways to involve team members to improve safety outcomes.

Fred Manuele, P.E., CSP, FASSP, legendary safety leader and author of an influential book about Z10, says the standard’s section on engagement is its most critical component. In 2004, a team from Indiana University published findings supporting the claim that a significant relationship exists between an organization’s safety climate and its number of injuries. OSHA has even included employee participation in its official safety and health program guidelines.

Researcher Rebecca Mullins, M.S., of Eastern Kentucky University, sought to add to the safety profession’s body of knowledge on this subject by assessing the relationship between worker engagement and injury rates. In 2019, Mullins and two peers — Earl Blair, Ed.D., M.S., CSP, FASSP, and E. Scott Dunlap, Ed.D., CSP — published the findings in Professional Safety. Here’s what they said.

Employee Engagement With Other Employees

Mullins started by asking questions related to four types of engagement between employees:

  1. The willingness to confront one another about unsafe acts
  2. The likelihood that workers would participate in discussions during safety training
  3. Whether employees participated in stretching exercises before their shift
  4. Whether employees communicated with each other outside of work

Most participants (57.9%) reported that they sometimes, seldom or never participated in training discussions.

“The consequences of this low level of engagement with other employees meant that potential ideas to improve safety efforts may go unheard,” says the article.

Mullins also found that while most employees would not always confront a peer about unsafe behavior (33.3% said they would), the likelihood increased if workers had established relationships off the job site.

Employee Engagement With Management

Next, Mullins assessed the levels and impact of management engagement, measuring:

  1. If employees would meet with management about safety issues
  2. Whether workers were willing to suggest new ideas to improve safety
  3. The likelihood that employees would report unsafe behaviors they had seen

Fewer than 20% of participants (19.8%) reported “mostly” or “always” when asked questions about their engagement with managers at their organization. Based on this finding, the article highlights an opportunity for researchers to more fully explore the reasons. For instance, are leaders failing to create a culture that encourages this type of engagement?

Mullin and her colleagues also found that while more than 85% of employees with a tenure of fewer than five years said they would like to work with management to address safety concerns, that was only true of 40% of employees overall.

Employee Engagement With Policies and Procedures

To measure employee engagement with safety rules and practices, Mullins examined:

  1. Whether employees followed safety policies
  2. If employees got frustrated when others broke the rules
  3. If employees were taking shortcuts
  4. Whether employees supported new safety procedures
  5. The likelihood employees completed lockout/tagout and felt they were able to follow safety policies while performing effectively

Fewer than 20% of respondents (16.3%) claimed they “mostly” or “always” were engaged with safety policies, indicating a high level of noncompliance.

“The data suggest a connection between noncompliance and employee injury status,” says the article.

Employee Self-Initiative

To evaluate employees’ initiative related to safety solutions on the job, the study measured:

  1. If workers were likely to be involved in addressing a safety concern
  2. Whether employees would fix a hazardous situation if they could
  3. The likelihood people would review the job risk analysis before a shift

Fewer than 10% (7.6%) of participants said they “mostly” or “always” did these things while at work.

However, most (nearly 80%) reported thinking more about safety when they went home to their families. This was especially true for respondents who identified as women. While 65.4% of men replied “mostly” or “always” to the question of thinking about safety with family, 87.5% of women gave the same response.


Mullins and her colleagues concluded that unengaged workers were more likely to sustain an injury at the manufacturing facility she surveyed.

“Disengaging with policies and procedures introduces an opportunity for error, increasing an employee’s risk of injury,” says the article, citing lockout/tagout as an example.

Adding support for the sections of ISO 45001 and Z10 about employee engagement, the authors provide recommendations for safety professionals working to improve outcomes using an OHSMS standard: First, encourage workers to be safety advocates by creating a system that gives them a voice, provides them opportunities for learning and involves them in developing safety metrics. Second, encourage managers to be “servant leaders for safety.” That means viewing safety as a primary responsibility, treating workers with respect, addressing concerns and guiding others with integrity.

No matter which OHSMS standard you use, let these findings inspire you to revisit its section on employee engagement. While safety professionals may disagree about which part of their OHSMS is the most important, most recognize the need for all workers to have a stake in safety and health.

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