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7 November 2014

Unions fend off draft occupational health standard

A draft international standard on health and safety at work failed to secure the necessary two-thirds majority vote in the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) committee developing it on 18 October. It will now have to be reviewed and voted on again. This is a battle won by the unions against provisions that would leave workers worse off.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) spoke out against the draft standard (ISO 45001) on occupational health and safety management systems in mid-October, claiming that it is at odds with International Labour Organisation (ILO) occupational health and safety (OHS) conventions. The ITUC’s call was backed by Public Services International and other international trade union federations who had been critically monitoring the standard’s development and even questioned why there should be one.

The ITUC argued that the draft was designed to shift responsibility for any workplace safety and health incidents onto the workers when worker participation in OHS administration and management had been written out, and that adopting it could lead to "a blame-the-worker system".

"Behavioural safety doesn’t resolve workplace health and safety problems, it buries them. It finds workforce scapegoats, not management solutions", inveighed the ITUC in a press release

By contrast, the draft was particularly business-friendly. A July 2014 version omitted any reference to employer responsibility for OHS, something deeply unwelcome to the ILO which had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the ISO in August 2013 stating that the standard should not be inconsistent with ILO conventions which, like EU laws (the 1989 Framework Directive) require employers to ensure the health and safety of their employees.

The ITUC reports that only four of 83 experts involved in the working group hammering out the draft are from workers’ organisations.

The standard was initially expected to be adopted before the end of 2016.The unions have no plans to let up the pressure because this simply delays, not defeats, the standard.

While the early decades of the ISO’s existence were focused mainly on developing technical standards, the past thirty years have seen it venturing increasingly into other areas. In the late 1980s, the ISO adopted its first standards on quality management systems - the well-known ISO 9000 standards – followed by others on the environment, human resources management, etc., some of which are in direct competition with legislation, particularly in social matters. Standards of course are private instruments with no legally binding authority, but in fact, a growing number of laws do refer to them, sometimes leaving no option but to implement them – a trend condemned by the ETUI in an issue of its HesaMag health and safety at work magazine published in early 2013.

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