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Ensuring workplace health and safety is a goal of every organization, but it can feel like a daunting task. You may be asking yourself, “where do I start?” The answer is with the development of a Safety Management System (SMS). This is a formal, organization-wide approach to managing safety and risk, including the necessary organizational structures, accountabilities, policies, and procedures to identify and control risk. There are several benefits to implementing a SMS, which include:

  • Improved health and safety performance;
  • Reduced costs associated with incidents;
  • Improved employee relations and morale;
  • Improved business efficiency;
  • Lower workers compensation premiums; and
  • Increased regulatory compliance.

Two of the most common SMS structures are the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 45001: 2018 (ISO 45001) and the Safety and Health Management Systems (SHMS) outlined in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA’s) guidance.

ISO 45001

ISO 45001 is a global international standard focusing on health and safety at work. It is a relatively new standard intended to replace OSHAS 18001, which had been used by industries around the world as a benchmark for Occupational Health and Safety Management. The ISO 45001 standard draws on the framework of OSHAS 18001, but also includes a stronger focus on the interaction between health and safety priorities and business operations. Companies that were previously certified under OSHAS 18001 have until September 11, 2021 to migrate to ISO 45001 (extended from the previous deadline of March 30, 2021 due to the impacts from the global COVID-19 pandemic).

In general, ISO standards aim to:

  • Achieve operational excellence;
  • Optimize risk management;
  • Manage product quality; and
  • Safeguard consumers[1].

More specifically, the purpose of ISO 45001 is to reduce employee loss of life while improving OH&S performance and maximizing operational efficiency. Outcomes of ISO 45001 implementation range from increasingly collaborative work environments and improved stakeholder relationships to improved operational efficiency through controls that reduce downtime, out of specification products, and recordable incidents. These outcomes are achieved through a process-based approach, versus the procedure-based approach of many other standards, including OSHAS 18001. ISO 45001 differs from a variety of other health and safety standards by being a living standard, or a standard regularly reviewed and updated by a coalition of experts.

ISO 45001 places emphasis on the interaction between an organization and its business environment. This means the standard is rooted in a wholistic process created from the perspective of running a sustainable operation.


The SHMS outlined in OSHA guidance documents are a set of recommendations to aid Management in the implementation of a successful safety and health management program. The OSHA guidance focuses on achieving goals, monitoring performance, and evaluating outcomes[2]. It is important to note these guidelines differ from the mandatory standards set by the United States Department of Labor and enforced by OSHA. While enforceable OSHA standards are applicable to operations of all sizes, SMS guidance from OSHA primarily applies to small and medium-sized operations. The OSHA program is structured around seven Core Elements:

  1. Management leadership;
  2. Worker participation;
  3. Hazard identification and assessment;
  4. Hazard prevention and control;
  5. Education and training;
  6. Program evaluation and improvement; and
  7. Communication and coordination on multiemployer worksites.

Each of the core elements are accompanied by action items which emphasize setting clear and measurable goals while including workers in each step of the development and implementation process. Action items and additional resources can be viewed by in-house and external EHS professionals at the OSHA Recommended Practices for Safety and Health Programs website.

In addition to communication and coordination on multiemployer worksites, communication is noted as a key component for fostering a positive work environment where workers feel empowered to report concerns and be active participants in a safety and health program.

Which SMS structure is right for your organization? 

If your organization has decided to implement a SMS, how do you know which one to choose? The benefits and factors discussed above can serve as good differentiating points to consider. Evaluating your company’s record with regard to regulatory violations or an overall lack of internal compliance may further complicate the decision-making process.

If ISO standards and systems have not yet become the norm throughout your organization, or if you do not yet have a good safety and health compliance program in place, implementing a SMS in accordance with the OSHA SHMS guidelines may be a good choice. With its focus on setting small attainable goals, this may be a great starting point before making the leap to the globally recognized standards at ISO.

While time and financial resources are required to get started with ISO 45001, the improvements in quality, safety, and cost savings down the road may be exactly what your company needs to drive improvement for occupational safety and health. Obtaining ISO 45001 registration may be required by a customer or if an organization just wants to make a commitment to having a robust occupational safety and health management system.

Your organization is ready for ISO 45001 if:

  • You are ready for a risk-based, proactive approach to occupational safety and health management;
  • You are already ISO certified through 9001, 14001, or another standard; or
  • You are currently certified under OSHAS 18001 and have not yet migrated to ISO 45001.

If your organization is certified under OSHAS 18001 and has not yet migrated to ISO 45001, a gap assessment will provide you with a good outline of action steps needed to complete the migration before September 11, 2021.

In the end, your organization does not need to be certified by ISO to see the improvements of implementing a system based on the ISO 45001 standard. But, because of the uniform nature of ISO standards and systems, adding 45001 to your organization’s playbook of ISO systems will most likely result in improved performance, safety, and compliance. The SMS can be developed and administered in accordance with ISO 45001 without certification. If there is a need for external validation in the future, your organization would be ready to take the next step and bring in a third-party to certify that you have met all the requirements.

If you are not yet familiar with ISO structure or are unsure of whether your organization has capacity to take on a new safety and health management system structure, an EHS consultant can guide you through a readiness assessment or compliance evaluation.


[1] https://www.iso.org/benefits-of-standards.html

[2] https://www.osha.gov/shpguidelines/


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