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International standards for workplace safety making progress

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A highly anticipated international safety standard intended to help companies reduce risks and promote safer workplaces is inching toward publication.

First proposed by the International Organization for Standardization in 2013, ISO 45001 is a voluntary occupational health and safety framework. Originally, it was expected to go into effect in October, but safety professionals involved in developing the standard say a 2017 publication date is more likely.

Stakeholders met earlier this month in Toronto to wade through nearly 3,000 comments on a draft of the standard after 71% of participating countries voted in favor of it, 28% — including the United States — voted against it, and 1% abstained, said Kathy Seabrook, founder and president of safety, health and environmental consulting firm Global Solutions Inc. in New York and vice chair of the U.S. Technical Advisory Group working on ISO 45001.

Two-thirds of the countries must vote in favor of the draft and less than one-fourth can vote against it to win publication approval, she said.

With 67 countries voting on the draft standard, “one of the most difficult things about a consensus standard is building a consensus,” said Victor Toy, San Mateo, California-based chair of the U.S. Technical Advisory Group and principal at safety consulting company Insyst OH&S.

An occupational health and safety management system is a newer concept for countries where companies are “still managing the numbers rather than the risks,” Mr. Toy said, as opposed to countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, which have federal agencies overseeing safety.

“Whether you're in Vietnam, Canada, the United States, Mexico or Japan,” the goal is to get everyone to follow the same framework to manage their occupational health and safety performance, which means reducing injuries and illnesses, Ms. Seabrook said.

Not to be confused with safety programs, which are smaller in scope, “this standard gets everybody involved in the all the processes. It's not just safety as a stand-alone process, but it's integrated into the business,” Mr. Toy said.

While safety programs include “practices and procedures to comply with specific rules and regulations,” a management system is “more of an overarching thing and looks higher in a management chain,” said Carol Schmeidler, manager of general safety and industrial hygiene programs at the department of environmental health and safety at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Though ISO 45001 would be voluntary, it could become a regulatory requirement in parts of the world.

“In some countries, they just adopt whatever the international standard is,” Ms. Seabrook said. She said the current “default consensus international standard” is Occupational Health and Safety Assessment Series 18001, which the British Standards Institution developed in 1999.

According to the institution, OHSAS 18001 will be withdrawn, and certified organizations will have three years to transition to ISO 45001 upon its publication.

The most recent version of ISO 45001 requires organizations to implement a “safety culture,” Mr. Toy said. However, “it's hard to come up with a single definition of what that really is. And when you have that difficulty, how do you know when you're there? ... That issue is currently being worked through the standard.”

Adopting the standard could be particularly important for contractors, said Luis Pieretti, a Tampa, Florida-based safety management consultant for workers compensation insurer The MEMIC Group.

“Some multinational companies will only do business with suppliers or contractors that are ISO-certified,” he said.

Progressive companies with good safety cultures likely already meet many of the potential ISO 45001 requirements, sources said.

For those companies, becoming certified could be a matter of developing “more formal processes for auditing” the company's safety performance, Ms. Schmeidler said.

In countries where standards are “not quite as stringent,” ISO 45001 will provide a goal that “should be measurable and auditable and improvable,” Ms. Schmeidler said. U.S.-based companies doing business abroad typically “try to comply with American-type standards, rather than the standards of the country that they're working in, which can be a big advantage.”