Globalizing OH&S: Is ISO the Answer?

Article excerpt

Depending on whom you ask, the concept of an international occupational health and safety management (OHSM) standard is a great idea, an invitation for regulatory excess or something of a distant puzzle. The International Standards Organization (ISO) will meet in Geneva, Switzerland, in September to vote on whether to go forward with such a standard. But with varying viewpoints even within individual stakeholder groups, ISO's decision is anything but certain.

ISO, a worldwide federation of 110 national standards bodies, already has a series of quality management systems standards, called ISO 9000. These standards were finalized in 1987 and revised in 1994. Essentially, the 9000 series encourages companies to implement systems that, through documentation, internal audits and optional third-party certification, ensure uniformity of product. ISO 9000 also requires a commitment to comply with national regulations and to continually improve the management system. The standard set no specific goals, only outline a system which companies can use to monitor and improve their production process.

The ISO 14000 series, still in draft form, applies to environmental management systems (EMS) and, like the 9000 series, does not set specific goals. This summer, ISO is expected to finalize 14000 standards related to an EMS "specification document," which will set criteria for the system, as well as auditing principles and procedures. Proposed future 14000 standards include those for environmental labeling, life cycle assessment and environmental aspects in product standards.

With ISO 9000 systems increasingly a part of global management practices and ISO 14000 systems well on their way, many believe the time is right for consideration of a safety and health counterpart. Great Britain, Ireland and Norway are among the countries now considering national OHSM consensus standards. Once finalized, these standards are likely to trigger an ISO version, according to John Meagher, technical director for the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA). "The writing is on the wall" for an ISO OHSM standard, he said.

AIHA, the U.S. stakeholder most supportive of the idea, this month will publish an OHSM "guidance document." Co-author Steve Levine, professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, said the document follows the ISO 9000 structure "exactly." In other words, it encourages a management system that uses documentation, internal audits and optional third-party certification to monitor safety and health performance. It also calls for commitments to regulatory compliance and to continual improvement of the OHSM system.

AIHA President-elect Zack Mansdorf is quick to point out that the document is not a standard. However, should ISO move forward with a standard, Mansdorf said AIHA would willingly offer its document as a starting template. In the meantime, the guidance is available for use by AIHA members. "It's meant for our member needs," Mansdorf said.

Although monitoring the issue closely, the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) has been less vocal, preferring to wait until U.S. stakeholders have a chance to come together and share their views. "[T]he Society views cautiously any perceived urgency for immediate action," ASSE stated in its January 1996 issue of Professional Safety. With so many unknowns surrounding the issue, "we need to walk gently," ASSE President Larry Oldendorf told Occupational Hazards.

On May 7 and 8, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the U.S. representative to ISO, will host a workshop in Rosemont, Ill., to hear comments from industry, labor, state and federal government, and professional organizations about the OHSM issue. ANSI's International Advisory Committee will draw from the discussion in developing a U.S. position, which it will convey to ISO at the September meeting. …