Staff consultation and participation — not just for ISO 45001

While the requirements of ISO 45001:2018 has bought staff consultation and participation into focus in recent months, there are legal requirements to be considered, too. Alan Field outlines why staff consultation and participation are an important part of any organisation’s management system.

Has occupational health and safety in your organisation always seemed to be a managerial or technical function, with the involvement of the workforce simply to comply with what has been decided? If so, this article is especially relevant. Even if you consider your staff consultation and participation processes to be well established, you can reassess them in a wider context of improved efficiency.

Defining key terms

In terms of ISO 45001, “worker” is defined as the person working under the control of an organisation. This applies to workers at all levels of the organisation and includes contractors.

“Consultation” is more than telling people what to do. It is a process for exchanging information and opinions throughout the organisation. Within a microbusiness, this may be direct discussion with individual workers, while larger organisations might variously use a committee structure, “toolbox talks”, intranet-based methods of seeking worker feedback and social media tools.

“Participation” is a wider concept. In practice, it means workers or their representatives take part in decision-making. In terms of ISO 45001 — which is a management system rather than a compliance system — there needs to be clearly defined processes, championed by the leadership team, for how this is achieved. Participation includes to what extent decision making is shared with workers and in what contexts; it doesn’t necessarily have to be to the same extent for every safety-related decision

Assess your current position

In our recent Croner-i webinar on implementing ISO 45001:2018, the international standard for occupational health and safety management systems (OHSMSs), the following questions were posed.

  • How far are workers consulted in your organisation about health and safety?

  • How far are contractors’ employees who work on your sites consulted on health and safety?

  • Do they ever participate in health and safety decision-making?

If the answer to any of these points is no, not at all or not fully, then the legal and best practice requirements with regard to both consultation and participation of workers need to be understood and implemented.

Why do you need to consult?

Even if your organisation has no intention at present of implementing ISO 45001 or other standards or schemes, there are specific legal requirements for employee consultation. These differ slightly for unionised and non-unionised employers but they apply to all organisations. See our topic Consultation with Employees for details.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says that, in “dynamic situations where the working environment changes regularly, worker consultation and involvement is fundamental in ensuring risks are effectively managed.”

In addition to ISO 45001, there are other schemes such as CHAS (the Contractors’ Health and Safety Assessment Scheme), which require staff consultation processes to be in place, so organisations may find themselves working closely with contractors or joint venture partners who require common health and safety processes.

ISO 45001 emphasises the importance of this. Interested parties (customers, neighbours, contractors, visiting consultants, etc) who come into contact with your workforce may need to be consulted on relevant health and safety matters. In any event, this makes good business sense that those regularly working with direct employees understand the health and safety regime you operate.

Implementing consultation and participation

To enable worker consultation and participation, the organisation must ensure the required mechanisms are in place. These include elements such as:

  • worker training

  • providing necessary resources

  • addressing any barriers to the organisation’s processes, eg poor literacy levels, lack of English, cultural differences.

Most importantly, the leadership team needs to champion and support the consultation and participation processes, acknowledging collaboration as a competitive advantage, ie something worth spending time on to improve efficiency and wellbeing.

Even where the leadership supports consultation, it may take place only with parts of the workforce or interested parties, eg the management team or supervisory grades. A simple gap analysis may determine if this is the case. Ask different workers’ groups if they have been consulted on safety issues. While it is often assumed that it is most likely to be junior or “gig” employees who aren’t consulted, some managerial or technical grades or particular departments or offices might have fallen through the net. Any gaps in your consultation process will be simple to resolve once they are in plain sight.

It is also worth considering, if some sections of the workforce or other interested parties aren’t being consulted on health and safety, whether there are other business critical issues like quality management that they are not being consulted on either. The bigger the organisation, the bigger risk that the leadership team won’t actually know what is going on with process delivery at a day-to-day level; this insight should be a driver to resolve any concerns about the priorities for worker consultation.

There may be even a total disconnect between consultation with your own staff and contractors who regularly work with your staff and/or customers; this can arise with joint venture working or other formal collaborations where, perhaps unwittingly, different workers are working to their own organisation’s health and safety system. Leadership teams — be it for one organisation or several — should take steps to ensure that collaboration and even participation can move forward in an integrated way.

Consultation and risk assessment

Consultation also helps in risk assessment ― what we assume is tested at the sharp end — and participation assumes decision making is shared. In a unionised business, this may be accepted as part of the worker representation in that risk assessments are jointly agreed.

Consultation and participation can save money as they ensure safer systems of work which almost always mean a more efficient process. Doing things right not helps health and safety but ensures there is no down time, no waste and, in some circumstances, innovations flow from suggestions.

Some health and safety controls lend themselves to direct worker consultation. Display screen equipment (DSE) assessments, for example, involve individual workers. There is no reason why this can’t be extended to more generic processes where the individual’s experience can be equally valuable, eg basic job instructions or using chemical agents ― the “information, instruction and training” required under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) could include consultation and participation processes.

Consultation and participation can also used as part of the risk assessment process for” softer” risks, eg stress or mental ill health in the organisation. Whilst this is a whole separate topic, consultation at all levels of the organisation is invaluable to build an accurate picture of wellbeing, etc.

Conclusion

Consultation and participation are not just an overhead. They can be used not just to improve worker safety and wellbeing but also wider process efficiency. They can assist in testing process design and lead to more collaborative first-line supervision practices as well as lending beneficial insights to support executive-level decision-making.