When I ask people involved in OH&S Management about their Safety Management System (SMS), some are swift to pull out their Safety Management Policy Binder and wave it at me with great pride. Some point at their Certificate on the wall.
Let's call the Binder the "Binder of Intention." The problem with that Binder as evidence of a SMS is that it only really describes what they would LIKE "safe production of goods and services in our organization" to look like. When we look closely at these Binders, we'll see that they are really nothing more than an organized series of statements of how we would like things to be. It is certainly NOT evidence that any of that is actually happening. In fact, many times we see serious gaps between what we want to happen in OH&S management and what is ACTUALLY happening.
In response to that need for a gap analysis, some have developed various standards to audit against. Some are international and some are tied to OH&S jurisdictional areas. Usually there are "pass marks" established and some sort of wall certificate issued to those companies hitting these arbitrarily established magic score numbers.
The problem with most of those audit instruments (I'm tempted to type "almost ALL") is that they have not been tested independently to demonstrate their effectiveness and correlation/causation to results achieved. For example, the question that really needs to be addressed is "Can great companies pass this audit or does doing the things detailed in the audit make great companies?" Many of the features of audit instruments are intuitively good things to do and include things like Hazard Assessment, communications, problem solving etc. The problems increase when these audits are "scored audits" and there is a fuzziness around how auditors are trained to evaluate and score. If the "pass mark" is 80%, what happens to the company that only scores 79? Well, besides not getting the fancy wall certificate signed by someone important.
So YES, every company needs an OH&S Binder of Intention. The Binder should describe as precisely as we can how we would like things to be at our companies. Then the task becomes defining the extent to which those statements are true. There's no need for an auditor or any additional audit instruments to tell you if those intentions are happening. All we really need to do is get out of our offices to look at our processes in action and talk with people on a daily/hourly basis about those intentions and gaps. The Safety Management System is now the stated Intentions and our observable evidence of the execution of the intentions. Now THAT is a System! If we do a complete job of this intention/execution gap analysis and checking, we won't ever need an auditor to tell us what we already know in GREAT detail. This of course means your wall may not have as many plaques on it!
If you want to read more about PRACTICAL and EFFECTIVE ways to manage OH&S please consider:
The Emperor Has No Hard Hat - Achieving REAL Workplace Safety Results
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Globe and Mail's Best Business Books of 2006
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