Worker is not a geographical definition

The publication of ISO 45001 is a right step in addressing safety on a global scale. Organisations must guarantee similar occupational standards in their supply chains.

How can businesses truly protect employees, particularly those in extended international supply chains?

An estimated 2.78 million work-related deaths occur annually throughout the world every year – it equates to five people dying every minute. This paints a sober picture of the modern workplace – one where workers can suffer serious consequences as a result of simply ‘doing their job’.

In the UK, health and safety practices have improved significantly since the 1970s. This is due, in part, to the introduction of occupational health and safety standards and legislation, which have made safety at work a priority and resulted in a 79 per cent drop in work-related fatalities in Britain since 1974.

However, it is unfortunately the case that organisations operating globally, either through their own operations or the supply chain, are falling short in their responsibility to local staff and communities.

ISO 45001 requires organisations to ensure that the operation of products and services are safe, and for their supply chain to operate at this standard too. Photograph: iStock

We can cite several examples, from the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, which led to the deaths of an estimated 1,134 people in Bangladesh, through to revelations of carcinogenic pollution around materials factories in India and Indonesia. These incidents suggest that the biggest businesses are attempting to offshore their responsibility when it comes to worker occupational health and safety.

Society now expects concern for employee welfare to extend throughout the supply chain, as well as business operations. It has never been morally justifiable for workers to be placed at risk, simply because of where they happen to be working in other parts of the world. Those remote from the corporate ivory tower have the same right as anyone else to go home at the end of the day in the same physical and mental condition as they arrived.

What’s changed?

Up until now, there has not been an international standard for occupational health and safety to be applied worldwide. In the past, countries could opt to use the British Standard OHSAS 18001. While this provided an effective framework it was, by its nature, primarily developed for use in the UK.

Thankfully, that has now changed following the launch of ISO 45001 – the world’s first internationally recognised standard for occupational health and safety. This marks a major step towards the prevention of work-related deaths and injuries that occur every year. The standard has been fed into, and backed by, more than 70 countries across all continents and is designed to be applied anywhere in the world.

While this isn’t a silver bullet for occupational health and safety, it does provide a lever that will allow organisations to ask more of their international supply chains. In order for this standard to take effect, however, businesses need to change their mindset.

ISO 45001 is the world’s first internationally recognised standard for occupational health and safety

Looking beyond

Occupational health and safety is not just about trips and falls or wearing the correct personal protective equipment. It goes far beyond that. New estimates presented at the XXI World Congress on Safety and Health at Work, held in Singapore on 3‑6 September 2017, indicate that work-related illnesses account for 86 per cent of all deaths related to work worldwide.

Within the standard it’s also important to consider the long-term health implications, not just the immediate effects. It may be long-term and it could be obtuse, but it’s still the responsibility of the organisation and should be included in the Occupational Health and Safety Management System (OHSMS), to ensure the organisation takes action to address every type of risk.

Meanwhile, mental health is another factor to bear in mind. In the UK, stress causes absences, lost time and if not managed properly and in a systematic manner, can have long-term illness-related consequences.

ISO 45001's definition of worker could be anyone in the supply chain undertaking work for the parent organisation

Redefining concepts

Who is defined as a ‘worker’? One of the key points that must be understood is what the standard means by ‘worker’. ISO 45001 defines a ‘worker’ as anyone who is under the direct control of an organisation. Essentially, it’s not just individuals on the payroll, it could be anyone in the supply chain undertaking work for the parent organisation – this could be a photographer contracted for one day, for example.

Taking responsibility.

At its very core, ISO 45001 is asking organisations to ensure that the operation of products and services are completely safe, and for partner organisations in their supply chain to operate at this standard too. Ultimately, the parent organisation has a responsibility to ensure that everyone under their control is actively supported with an occupational health and safety system.

No matter the size of a business, there should be the same level of care and due diligence applied throughout. The key responsibility of any manager is to ensure that their staff go home at night as physically and mentally able as when they arrived. The framework has been created to provide a safer workplace for all, whatever the size, sector or location around the world.

The standard is by no means a fix-all solution. It is, however, a first step. It is not, and never has been, justifiable that a person’s safety at work depends entirely on the country in which they happen to be working. Major businesses must now encourage suppliers to work towards the adoption of ISO 45001, and make certification a necessary requirement of their purchasing and specification process.

Estelle Clark is director of policy at the Chartered Quality Institute