health and safety management systems

Harvard study shows health & safety management systems make for a safer workplace

Apr. 22 2022

Health and safety in the workplace and employee wellbeing have moved up the agenda in recent years. As a result, more and more businesses are choosing to adopt certified Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems (OHSMS) to take care of staff and demonstrate their commitment.

While implementing a management system represents a cost in terms of both time and money, responsible employers are increasingly willing to invest. However, because such standards mainly impose requirements on processes and procedures, quantifying their effectiveness is complex. The consequence is that it can be hard to judge whether adopting them actually fosters better health and safety in the workplace and, if they do, how we can assess the extent of their impact.

Using anonymized data contributed by the Independent International Organisation for Certification (IIOC), Harvard Business School sought to investigate these questions. Drawing on this alongside data provided by the United States Department of Labor Statistics, including its Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses, researchers sought to determine whether the adoption of a management system standard is really a credible indicator of superior health and safety performance. The study, published in December 2021, was based on 2018 data and, as a result, focuses on OHSAS 18001, but its results are applicable to OHSMS across the board.

The link between certification and higher performance

The results of the study were revealing. The main benefits promised by an OHSMS are the reduction of incidents in the workplace and a resulting decrease in downtime and its associated costs. Harvard’s researchers came to two important conclusions following their investigation.

Firstly, they found that certified management systems attract safer organizations. They found that each additional injury and illness case was associated with a 21% decline in the probability that a company adopted an OHSMS in the following two years. Each of the most severe cases that resulted in days away from work were associated with an even larger 36% decline in the odds of adoption. In other words, management systems are adopted by establishments that already have fewer injury and illness cases than companies that choose not to certify.

Secondly, the researchers established that, as a result of implementing the standard, certified companies experience fewer injury and illness cases than a matched set of non-adopters. The study found that companies certified to OHSAS 18001 experience 20% fewer cases of injury and illness than others (matched companies reviewed over the same period of time).

These results imply both that certified OHSMS are adopted by companies who already have lower rates of injury and illness, and that once they implement a standard, their incident rates go down even further. Either way, an OHSMS is a strong indicator of superior performance. Certification improves health and safety in the workplace and therefore helps companies reduce downtime along with incident costs and insurance premiums.

Safeguarding an image

The other often-cited advantage of implementing and certifying an OHSMS is the reputation boost companies can experience. The logic of this claim is simple: by making and then proving a commitment to taking care of their workers, they project an image of responsibility and demonstrate they have ethical values.

The results of the Harvard study bear this out. Since it found that companies who adopt a standard do indeed have lower illness and injury rates than companies that do not adopt a standard, it would seem they deserve their superior reputation for protecting staff. The study also showed that, as well as starting off ahead of the pack, companies that adopt the standard also improve over time. Again, this clearly shows that the image boost they receive from certification is more than warranted.

Making the transition to ISO 45001

The Harvard Business School study was based on data from 2018, when the OHSMS standard to beat was OHSAS 18001. Since then, organizations have made the switch to ISO 45001, which provides more detailed requirements than its predecessor.

ISO 45001 expands its scope beyond physical safety to encompass the psychological dangers of burnout, harassment and stress-related illness. It also includes less obvious hazards such as repetitive strain injuries and back pain. Another significant new concept is the role of workers in identifying potential health and safety hazards at work. This may take the form of a representative team to ensure health and safety risks are identified at all levels of the organization. ISO 45001 certification requirements follow the same High-Level Structure as other ISO management system standards, streamlining the implementation of several certification standards simultaneously. It also aligns with existing certification standards and, unlike OHSAS 18001, it is an accredited standard.

The consequence of the far-reaching and significant upgrades that ISO 45001 offers compared to OHSAS 18001 is an equivalent increase in the benefits companies enjoy from certification. The Harvard Business School study hints at this, citing the greater engagement of senior management leadership in health and safety, and a broader set of health and safety activities to promote a safety culture. The study’s conclusion suggests that researchers expect the safety benefits yielded by ISO 45001 to outstrip the - already positive - impacts of the previous standard, and recommends further investigation to prove this hypothesis once enough data can be collected.

The pros of accredited certification

Management system standards have been implemented by hundreds of thousands of companies around the world, yet many managers and regulators have remained uncertain of the true value they offer. The 2021 report by the Harvard Business School eliminates all doubt, proving not only that the companies that choose to adopt an OHSMS already have better health and safety results but also that, once they put a system in place, their results improve even further.

As a global leader in ISO 45001 training and certification, Bureau Veritas supports 12,000 organizations globally in consolidating, improving, and proving their health and safety credentials. Working with Bureau Veritas, respected for its reliability, sustainability and trustworthiness, to achieve ISO 45001 certification underscores an organization’s commitment to protecting employees worldwide and sends a powerful message regarding its commitment to excellence.