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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard Magazine

Systems on Trial

Do safety management systems actually reduce risk of harm? CHRIS PEACE looked for evidence under every rock and could find very little.

Let’s start with the good news. The original research into the effectiveness of safety management systems (SMS) from the late 1970s looked at manufacturing plants in the United States with low accident rates. It showed the critical factors in successful safety programmes were:

  • • 
    greater management commitment and involvement in plant safety matters;
  • • 
    greater management skills in managing both material and human resources;
  • • 
    a humanistic approach to employees with high levels of supervisor/employee interactions;
  • • 
    high standards of housekeeping;
  • • 
    lower staff turnover and absenteeism.

So, surely, implementing an SMS would provide positive results that are measurable and reproducible. But where was the evidence? In 2010 I researched major databases for peer-reviewed, bias-free evidence showing what makes for an effective SMS.

The results showed there is considerable debate about SMS and whether, or to what extent, they produce real improvements in OHS outcome. Commonly cited SMS success factors included:

  • • 
    senior management commitment;
  • • 
    worker participation;
  • • 
    proactive, rather than reactive, risk management;
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    integration of the SMS with other management systems;
  • • 
    long-term focus on targets other than occupational safety;
  • • 
    broadly based monitoring processes rather than narrow auditing focused on short-term, easily counted outcomes.

Some of these factors are similar to the research from the late 1970s. Other research shows:

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    off-the-shelf voluntary management systems may not fit specific workplaces;
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    off-the-shelf systems produce impressive results that are not supported by detailed analysis (an issue identified by several researchers);
  • • 
    conventional auditing systems tend to look for predefined “programmes, policies and barriers” rather than questioning if the SMS is adequate in design and assumptions;
  • • 
    some SMS produce a façade of self-regulation and a reduction in employee involvement.

One research project found improvements in safety management in 24 SMEs that volunteered to be part of the study. However, many of the components of each SMS were found to have been already in place before the study, and the intervention worked mainly to bring them together in a system. The research found no evidence of reduced levels of harm due to the SMS.


A review for the Australian National Occupational Health and Safety Advisory Commission of the effectiveness of SMS in securing healthy and safe workplaces also found no conclusive evidence in favour of SMS. It noted that methods for evaluation of the effectiveness SMS need to take account of the:

  • • 
    method of establishment (voluntary or mandatory);
  • • 
    principal OHS control strategy (safe person/safe place);
  • • 
    management structure and style (innovative or traditional);
  • • 
    level of system development (meeting basic specifications or stakeholder needs);
  • • 
    degree of implementation (introductory or fully operational).

This research concluded there were three barriers to successful implementation of any SMS:

  • • 
    system design faults including failure to consult with employees and lack of integration with general management functions and systems;
  • • 
    inappropriate use of audit tools that can induce system design faults;
  • • 
    special difficulties in particular sections of business or the workforce.


A 2007 research project looked at seven systematic studies of voluntary SMS, one showing no improvements and six with some improvements. However, the researchers had reservations about methodologies in all but one of the studies. Two key concerns were:

  • • 
    bias on the part of the authors as some appeared to be advocates of SMS implementation;
  • • 
    bias on the part of organisations participating in the studies as they volunteered and so may have had a bias towards success.

The same study looked at nine mandatory SMS that showed improvements in OHS indicators, but the authors had reservations about these studies. They concluded that “… despite the generally positive results on the effectiveness of SMS interventions in the published, peer-reviewed literature, the evidence is insufficient to make recommendations either in favour of or against particular SMS. This is not to judge these systems as ineffective or undesirable; it is merely to say that it would be incautious to judge either way in the present state of our research knowledge.”


Successful introduction of SMS into organisations is highly dependent on the institutional environment of the country. Failure to recognise this may result in the law of unintended consequences, producing unexpected outcomes from an apparently good proposal because, as the same study found, “… firms in different countries have distinct possibilities to deal with the requirements of SMS, which in turn demands distinct institutional enforcement regimes for OHS: For instance, institutional mechanisms which compensate for the weak abilities of workers to interfere in OHS issues must be established.”

That is, the consultation and collaboration arrangements within a country need to be conducive to effective engagement with the people on whom the safety management system is focused. Put another way, in a country that is not strongly unionised, or where SMEs dominate, or both, SMS may not work as intended.

These findings were echoed in recent research on the effectiveness of SMS in SMEs in Spain, South Africa and Canada. One paper concluded there was good evidence in favour of the use of SMS to help reduce workplace injuries and ill-health, but that the effectiveness of an “… OHS system is determined by the quality of industrial relations, rate of unionization, intensity of price-based competition, access to public aid and training activities provided by the OHS public agencies, technology intensity, and the manual nature of workers’ tasks.”


The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has proposed an integrated approach to management systems, an approach that is supported by UK-based IOSH. This may lead to a core management system supported by specialist systems for risk, safety, quality, environment, and so on. If implemented, these proposals will require “tagging” of components of the overall management system to enable their identification so auditors and regulators can conduct audits or reviews.

ISO is currently working on an international standard on SMS – ISO45001 – with a planned publication date of 2015.


Risk is defined in ISO31000:2009 as the “effect of uncertainty on objectives”. Getting all managers and employees to think about the level of uncertainty in their work activities helps develop a culture where safety-related risks are challenged and managed to an acceptable level.

Risk management (“the coordinated activities to direct and control an organisation with regard to risk”) then helps manage the big risk picture, including safety-related risk, in the organisation.

And, before anyone asks, there is research evidence for the effectiveness of risk management – but that’s another story.


There are conflicting arguments for and against SMS, including those in the table, but evidence that they result in less harm is hard to find. Was any reduction due to an SMS or to some other factor?

If SMS are effective, there ought by now to be a body of reliable supporting research evidence. Yet only one paper describing voluntary systems with positive benefits met reviewers’ standards for research rigour, and none of the mandatory SMS studies met their standards.

Safety management systems are a lovely idea and they ought to work. But we can’t prove it. Now try to justify the investment in a SMS to your executive team. But first, persuade them to do two things more often: walk the shop floor, ask about risks to people.

SMS have a significant impact in reducing both direct health care costs and absenteeismGreater management skills and involvement in managing people may produce the same results as a formal SMS
Organisations use SMS as a “searching map” to help improve health and safety and solve internal problemsLack of research evidence for SMS
In periods of low unemployment, more educated employees seek out employers who match expectations for managing work environment issuesSMS do not support creativity and experiment, which are crucial for organisational learning
An SMS can act as a vehicle for wider organisational improvementsAn SMS can mask problems by directing resources to system maintenance rather than problem solving
“Off-the-shelf” SMS may provide an easy-to-use approach to organisational improvementFirms seek to emulate successful competitors without fully understanding cause, effect and culture
 Poor performers may withdraw from or not join voluntary schemes, so distorting the apparent benefits

Wellington-based Chris Peace, CFIOSH, is a director of Risk Management Ltd. He is also a part-time student at Victoria University researching the effectiveness of risk assessments. For a fully referenced version of the story contact him:

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