Systems Approach to Managing Safety

Why is a Systems Approach Needed?

Article by Noel Arnold and Associates

As community attitudes to occupational health and safety have changed and associated regulations evolved, organisations have come to understand that a systematic approach to managing safety is required. To understand why this is the case, it is sometimes helpful to consider what would happen if traditional approaches to safety were adopted for the core function of the organisation. For instance, if an organisation produces widgets, would it be sufficient to place signs everywhere saying:

“YOU are responsible for producing widgets”

Most would agree this would not work. As with any other aspect of the functioning of an organisation, a more systematic approach is required.

An Occupational Health and Safety management system (OHSMS) integrates safety into each aspect of an organisation in a pro-active way. A system includes documents however it must also have actions (e.g. risk assessments are undertaken, induction occurs, the health and safety committee meets and acts). A well designed OHSMS helps an organisation to include safety as “part of the way we do business around here”.

Organisational OHS Maturity

When establishing a more systematic approach to managing safety, it is helpful to understand where your organisation is in terms of OHS maturity. Four levels of system maturity can be considered:

Immature (Troubled):

  • Adhoc, reactive approach to OHS issues & risks.
  • Negligible accountability & understanding of processes to manage risks.
  • Many incidents are considered as unavoidable.

Reactive (Responsive)

  • Processes for managing OHS are largely informal & reactive to issues or incidents.
  • Focus is on managing risks when problems occur.
  • Personal accountability/ responsibility for OHS is limited.

Attentive (Managed)

  • Appropriate structures, systems & processes are established, but not fully implemented.
  • Gaps in the OHS system are still being identified & rectified.
  • Significant effort put into pro-active measures to prevent incidents.
  • Management actively engaged in prevention processes.

Mature (Value-Adding)

  • Appropriate structures, system & processes are well established & integrated into business processes.
  • Shared belief that OHS is a critical aspect of personal & organisational performance.
  • Focus on continuous improvement & finding better ways to control risks.

What are the components of an OHS Management System (OHSMS)?

The most common framework for developing an OHS Management System is Australian Standard AS4801:2001 OHS Management Systems – Specification with guidance for use.

The framework has the following elements:

Policy & Commitment

At the start of the journey, there needs to be commitment particularly from senior management to a shared OHS vision. This is usually expressed as an OHS Policy, a document that is about one page long. AS4801 has some guidance on the content of the OHS policy; however the document should reflect the specific needs of the organisation.


The organisation needs to determine the key regulatory requirements they must meet and also get an understanding of their major OHS risks and how they will be identified. Objectives, targets and KPIs need to be set. These should incorporate both lead (e.g. % safety training completed) and lag (e.g. number of lost time injuries) indicators. A plan is vital to ensure targets are reached in a systematic way and it should be linked to the organisation’s strategic plan. The plan should allocate resources and timelines and can be used to monitor development of the OHSMS.


A critical element of an OHSMS is the implementation phase. This includes:

  • Allocation of appropriate resources (personnel & equipment);
  • Defining & communicating OHS responsibilities & accountabilities;
  • Training of employees in relation to safe systems/ processes;
  • Ensuring employee effective consultation & communication with employees/stakeholders;
  • Proactively controlling workplace risks;
  • Managing contractor OHS exposures; and
  • Establishing capability to deal with a range of emergency situations.

At this stage, it is very important to consider how the organisation operates and to integrate OHS requirements into existing processes. The knowledge of line personnel is particularly important at this stage. For example, by including:

  • OHS training in existing training frameworks & programs.
  • OHS clauses into existing contractor tender specifications and contracts.
  • OHS responsibilities and accountabilities into existing position descriptions and performance review processes.
  • Risk assessments in job scheduling and planning.

Measurement and Evaluation

Having implemented the system, the measurement and evaluation stage checks that the system is operating effectively. Activities include workplace inspections, testing of equipment (e.g. machine guards), incident management and auditing. Having an OHSMS helps to capture findings from incident investigations and inspections and improve systems. For example, if an incident investigation finds that people are not being trained to address a specific risk, the training matrix can be updated to include relevant information on these risks. As another example, an inspection could identify that personal protective equipment is not adequate and this could lead to changes in purchasing specifications.

Management Review

A broad review of the suitability and effectiveness of the OHSMS needs to be undertaken periodically (e.g. every 1 to 3 years). The review could consider such matters as emerging risks or if the organisation has changed activities that may alter the risk profile. The review should focus on “big picture” issues and usually involves senior management.

The OHSMS framework is similar to Environment and Quality Management System frameworks and many organisations integrate all three systems.

What can an OHSMS do for my organisation?

An Occupational Health and Safety Management System can:

  • Prevent people being hurt.
  • Save your organisation money.
  • Demonstrate to regulators, customers and others that you are managing OHS.
  • Provide you with a clear roadmap to manage OHS so you can feel in control, rather than reacting to endless seemingly unrelated OHS issues.

Practical Considerations

An OHS system alone does not necessarily achieve improved performance. Successful OHS management systems:

  • Are actively championed by senior managers.
  • Are relevant and practical.
  • Are fully implemented (an OHS Manual is not an OHS management system).
  • Integrate with organisational processes.
  • Engage all levels including employees and managers.
  • Involve pro-active risk management.

OHS management systems include a monitoring/review process and in this way are self improving. Monitoring can be undertaken via internal or external audits and review processes.

Monitoring the safety culture (what people think and their level of engagement) is also a powerful way to gauge the effectiveness of how well OHS is being managed in the organisation.

An OHSMS needs to fit the needs of each organisation. It can be very complex or very simple, depending on the size, risk profile and complexity of the organisation and the skills of the person(s) who design the system.

Further Information

For further information, please contact your local NAA office:

Melbourne: Mary-Anne Camp on (03) 9890 8811

Sydney: Sheetal Thakorlal on (02) 9889 1800

Brisbane: Delwynn Wecker on (07) 3514 9222

Barry Spud

Barry Spud

Safety Crusader, Zero Harm Zealot, Compliance Controller and Global Pandemic Expert at Everything Safety
Barry Spud

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Barry Spud
What is a Safety Spud? Lets look at a few more spud head activities in risk and safety: 1. Coming on to site saying there is a safety issue when in fact there’s no such thing, it’s a political issue. 2. ‘Falling apart’ when people make choices that we think are stupid because they won’t do as we ‘tell’ them. Then we put on the angry face and think that overpowering others creates ownership. 3. Putting on the zero harm face, presenting statistics, knowing it has nothing to do with culture, risk or safety. 4. Putting on the superman (hazardman) suit and pretending to be the saviour of everything, this is good spud head cynic stuff. 5. Thinking that everyone else is a spud head except me. 6. Thinking there’s such a thing as ‘common’ sense and using such mythology to blame and label others. 7. Accepting safety policies and processes that dehumanize others. 8. Blaming, ego-seeking, grandstanding and territory protecting behind the mask of safety. 9. Thinking that risk and safety is simple when in fact it is a wicked problem. Denying complexity and putting your spud head in the sand. 10. Continually repeating the nonsense language and discourse of risk aversion that misdirect people about risk, safety, learning and imagination.

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