Occupational health and safety management
Occupational health and safety tends to be seen as quite a complex area that employers generally do not want to spend time and money on. An enterprise’s business interests are mainly focused on increasing profit or turnover or gaining a larger market share. However, an increasing number of enterprises are paying more attention to the working conditions, well-being and working environment of employees. Addressing these issues systematically reduces the likelihood of damage to health and interruptions in production or service provision. Professional and purposeful management increases the productivity and efficiency of employees and the enterprise is more sustainable in its economic activities.
The general framework for the prevention or reduction of damages to the health of employees caused by work has been established in the Occupational Health and Safety Act and its by-laws. An employer shall ensure that occupational health and safety requirements are met in every work-related situation. Unfortunately, in many companies, legal requirements are mainly followed to avoid punishment imposed by a labour inspector and the requirements are only met in order to be in compliance with the law. An employer shall be prepared for a situation where, if some legal requirements are met and some are not, the employees may not be protected from damage to health caused by work. In the event of damage to health, an employee has the right to claim a relatively large amount of compensation to the extent provided by law. If an employer proves that he or she is not at fault for the damage to health and has diligently followed the requirements, he or she is generally not liable for the damage. Demonstration of compliance with the requirements needs regular and expert monitoring of the company’s occupational health and safety situation and planning and implementation of prevention activities in accordance with the requirements provided by law or legislation established on the basis thereof. The described activities are set out in law as the employer’s obligation to carry out a regular internal control of the working environment. The term occupational health and safety management makes things clearer.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines occupational health and safety management as a set of interrelated elements for the implementation of occupational health and safety policies and objectives. This includes, but is not limited to, policies, planning, responsibilities and accountability, communication, instruction and training, risk management, monitoring and control, and corrective and preventive actions. Continuous improvement of the occupational health and safety situation is one of the most important elements in ensuring successful management. The management system is based on the well-known PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) model.
Activities related to the management of occupational health and safety shall be consistent, regular and organised into a system suitable for the enterprise. Each enterprise will develop a suitable and effective system for complying with the law over time and it depends, among other things, on the structure, management style and competence of the responsible persons. When developing the system, it is worthwhile to examine the guidelines of the occupational health and safety management standard (EVS-ISO 45001) as well as solutions that have been tried and tested in the enterprise’s area of activity across the world. However, you do not have to adopt the entire system, only the elements that are suitable for your enterprise.
A proactive approach is likely to be successful only if it is supported by management. Therefore, the starting point should be introducing the importance of occupational health and safety to the management. If this field is important for the management, occupational health and safety as one of the core values of the organisation should be communicated to the employees. If the working environment specialist or another employee is familiar with the legislation regulating occupational health and safety, he or she can coordinate and develop a management system for occupational health and safety. It should be ensured that the system is not developed by a small number of people.
First, a coherent and comprehensive prevention policy should be formulated in cooperation with a member of the management board or CEO of the enterprise that contains technology, organisation of work, working conditions, social relations and impact of factors related to the working environment. The policy generally defines responsibility towards the employees, society and the environment that satisfies employees and the provisions of legislation. It is highly recommended to involve employees in the development of the prevention policy so that they would adopt it more easily. The environmental, health and safety policy of the enterprise operating in Estonia that is part of a global group and has more than 20 years of experience is based on respect towards people and the environment. The objective of the enterprise is to prevent occupational accidents, occupational diseases and unused waste. The employees are committed to achieving these ambitious policy objectives on a daily basis, adhering to the following principles:
- compliance with the law and respect to good administrative practices;
- risk management;
- measurable priorities and objectives based on the performance of the group’s most successful comparable plants;
- the policy is also applied to subcontractors who cooperate with the group’s plants;
- continuous responsible and open dialogue with partners (authorities, customers, suppliers, etc.).
Measures are planned to promote the physical, mental and social well-being of the employees and to prevent or reduce health risks at all stages of work of the enterprise. In practice, this means analysing work processes to identify potential risks in the short and long term, and then taking measures to avoid the risks to the greatest extent or to reduce their impact.
Activities related to occupational health and safety are planned based on the outcomes of the risk assessment of the working environment. If the outcomes of the risk assessment do not reflect some of the significant hazards or if the assessments of the health and safety of some employees do not account for or observe the risks associated with some workplaces, work equipment or organisation of work, it is possible that some activities intended to prevent damage to health are not planned and implemented. It is therefore important to identify the situation of the working environment in the course of the risk assessment and to describe the outcomes in detail. Employees who are exposed to the work and working environment on a daily basis, have experience and are familiar with each other’s work habits and work methods shall be involved in the organisation of the risk assessment.
The analysis and assessment of the risks is followed by an analysis of the adequacy of the prevention measures for risks present in the places of work. All decisions regarding the risk prevention measures shall take into account the requirements provided in the relevant legislation which set minimum requirements to eliminate or control a risk. Information on the costs involved and the effectiveness and reliability of the various measures is needed to decide on the appropriateness of a measure to be adopted. The action plan prepared on the basis of the risk assessment of the working environment is a document of the activities organised in all areas of activity and on all management levels of the enterprise. The action plan shall provide a description of the activities envisaged to prevent or reduce the health risk of employees, their schedule and persons implementing them.
The general principles of prevention help to plan the measures:
- risk prevention;
- assessment of unavoidable risks;
- elimination of risks at the source or, if that is not possible, their reduction to an acceptable level;
- replacement of a hazardous factor with a safer or less hazardous one;
- adaptation of work, the place of work and organisation of the work to best suit the employee;
- adaptation of work equipment and methods to account for technological advancements;
- preferring the use of collective protection measures and equipment over the use of personal protective equipment;
The roles and responsibilities of the persons involved in the prevention and management of occupational health and safety risks at the place of work shall be clearly defined, planned and monitored proactively. If some actions are not taken or do not provide the desired results, changes shall be made.
Each organisation has a unique culture which, among other things, shapes the way occupational health and safety is addressed. There is often talk of poor safety culture, referring to the tendency of employees to ignore safety requirements or behave in a dangerous manner. An organisation’s safety culture is a set of individual and group values, attitudes, competencies, and behaviours that determine commitment to and expertise and management of health and safety in an organisation. An organisation with a good safety culture is characterised by communication based on mutual trust, accepted understanding of the importance of safety and confidence in the existing protection measures.
Strong and visible leadership and dedicated leaders at every level of leadership can guide and contribute to prevention. This shows to the employees that occupational health and safety is an issue of strategic importance for the enterprise. The management sets an example and demonstrates the integrity of leadership, for example by always following all occupational health and safety rules. The subordinates will soon understand what their superiors consider important and act accordingly. An example is the top executive of an enterprise who spends the main part of his or her working day in their office. He or she considers it important to wear safety shoes every time he or she visits the production premises, no matter how short the time spent there is. Namely, wearing safety shoes is mandatory due to the hazards present in the production premises. Although they may know that they will not visit an area of the production premises that presents the risk of a foot injury, they still put on the safety shoes. If employees are required to wear safety shoes in these premises, they will do the same. They are motivated to do so because the example that they set as the top executive of the enterprise is more important than the small inconvenience posed by changing shoes.
Executing the action plan and meeting the objectives requires constant work. A detailed action plan will make it easier to implement activities. It is recommended for each responsible person to draw up detailed activities for the timely implementation of the activities arising from the action plan. The responsible persons should also think about the obstacles that lie ahead and how to deal with them.
It is recommended to involve employees in the execution of the plan. For example, experience, personal qualities and motivation of employees should be considered in designating employees or providers of first aid responsible for rescue and evacuation. The suitable responsible persons are revealed in communication and the training of the employees. The selection and implementation of new technology and work equipment can be carried out by exchanging ideas with employees, considering the company’s needs and the employees’ competencies. The actions set out in the action plan may not provide the expected results without cooperation. The latter should also be described in detail in the action plan in order to avoid misunderstandings.
In a small company with few employees, most occupational health and safety tasks are performed by a working environment specialist. In particular, he or she regularly monitors and checks the company’s working conditions and compliance with legal requirements, and takes measures to reduce the impact hazards in the working environment. Even in a small company, it is worth sharing the monitoring and inspection responsibility if possible. For example, in a construction company, orders are given on the construction site by the manager responsible for organising the work, and the working environment specialist who works in the office may not often visit the site. Therefore, it is reasonable to impose the obligation to monitor safety requirements on the site manager who organises the work. However, if the working environment specialist is also the site manager, this division of duties is not possible.
In a company with more than ten employees, the working environment representative and, where available, several representatives, should be involved. The latter shall ensure that occupational health and safety measures are implemented at the workplace and that employees are provided with personal protective equipment in working order. They shall also provide notification of a dangerous situation or deficiencies discovered in the working environment. Therefore, they are the ones who can draw attention to deficiencies related to non-compliance. One of the key elements of the occupational health and safety management system is working environment representatives who perform their duties diligently and the employer should support the performance of their duties.
The mere involvement of employees is not a precondition for compliance with legal requirements. The direct supervisors of employees should also be involved. If the direct supervisors monitor similarly to the working environment representative that measures related to occupational health and safety are taken in the place of work and employees are provided with personal protective equipment in working order, it will give a clear signal to the employees of the importance of occupational health and safety. In this case, work orders are not only issued based on quality of work and deadlines, but the attention of employees is also consistently drawn to the requirements of occupational health and safety.
However, there are quite a lot of requirements based on occupational health and safety legislation and instructions and rules established in the enterprise. The outcomes of the risk assessment of the working environment should ascertain the priority risks, however, the activities of the employer should be aimed at meeting all the requirements. Compliance with different requirements may also be checked at different times. That ensures that the inspectors are not overburdened. Inspections are also facilitated by checklists that contain 7–10 items. Post-inspection activities are as important as the inspections. If it is revealed that mandatory personal protective equipment is not used, the use of such equipment shall be demanded. More severe action is required in the case of repeated violations. Inspectors should be provided with instructions on how to act in situations where an employee fails to meet the requirements. That makes it clear how to behave and what follows a violation. It should be kept in mind that an employee may have compelling reasons for not using personal protective equipment. Perhaps it was uncomfortable or broken or the employee did not know how to use it properly. The reasons for non-use should also be recorded and measures taken to prevent their recurrence.
Analysis of the organisation
An employer shall review the organisation of internal control of the working environment annually. If the employer is not satisfied with the organisation, he or she adjusts the measures based on the changed situation. This ensures continuous improvement of the system. For example, an employer may not be satisfied with how the working environment representatives or supervisors perform their monitoring duties, as he or she finds that only a few cases of failure to use personal protective equipment or dangerous situations which may have resulted in an occupational accident are recorded in the enterprise. To change this, the employer plans to raise awareness of the importance of noticing dangerous situations on a wider scale, establish a simple recording system and personally acknowledge the employees who notice a dangerous situation.
The role of the working environment council in an enterprise with more than 150 employees cannot be underestimated either. Among other things, the council is tasked with regularly analysing the working conditions in the enterprise, recording the problems that arise and making proposals to the employer to solve them, and monitoring that the adopted decisions are carried out. Examining the outcomes of the internal control of the working environment and making proposals to eliminate deficiencies, if necessary, is also a task of the council. Following an analysis of occupational accidents and diseases and other work-related diseases, the council can propose measures to prevent similar incidents and also monitor that the employer takes measures to prevent them. A council may also be formed in an enterprise with less than 150 employees. An employer can initiate this.
From time to time, it is worthwhile to involve an outside specialist or consultant to evaluate the organisation of the internal control of the working environment or occupational health and safety management. A third person notices situations that have become habitual for the enterprise’s employees.