Prevention of serious illness like COVID-19 is much more effective when people work systematically as teams, solve problems together, and create learning environments for continual improvement. Anticipating error, teams solving problems, and systems driving reliable and safe behavior are all benefits of an effective safety management system, and it forms the basis for human/organizational performance.

What is a safety management system?

A safety management system is a set of interrelated organizational elements needed to prevent injury and illness to workers and to provide safe and healthy workplaces. The system includes:

  • Objectives
  • Policies
  • Processes
  • Organizational structures
  • Roles and responsibilities
  • Planning protocols
  • Performance evaluations

How to build a safety management system

There are four primary steps to establish and maintain a safety management system:

1. Plan: Anticipate risks and opportunities for better safety.

  • Commit time and resources to assess hazards and risks, evaluate opportunities for improvement, and review other considerations, like legal requirements.
  • Set both short- and long-term goals.
  • Establish cadence and commitment, such as a weekly/monthly/quarterly basis for teams to review goals, risks, and progress.
  • Define the factors that are critical to worker safety in your joint-employer environment, such as workforce management, social distancing, and hygiene/sanitation.
  • Establish KPIs and related performance metrics, including number of non-conformities identified relating to COVID-19 prevention best practices, number of trainings, and KPIs related to serious injury/fatality prevention.

2. Do: Activities accomplished together lead to better safety.

  • Eliminate hazards using the hierarchy of controls methods.
  • Evaluate your completion of items identified during the "plan" phase.
  • Record successes, areas for improvement and course corrections related to your safety-planning activities, including peripheral activities like near hits, root cause evaluation, compliance activities, and creative items, such as surveys from employees or front-line supervisors.
  • Set target completion dates for each action item, respective to each employer (both client and staffing).

These elements of "Do" occur both inside/outside the plant or production floor but should include contributions from each employer to ensure a strong shared safety strategy.

3. Check: Is what we’re doing working? Adjust and refine.

  • Monitor the reliability, completion, and results of safety activities, including hazard identification, reporting, audit processes, and safety committee communications.
  • Check communications across all employers, including orientation, follow-up, and front-line supervisor practices and oversight.
  • Verify knowledge and retention of items critical to safety.
  • Identify and report hazards.
  • Follow up on open safety items and corresponding actions; ensure they’re reliable and match the level of risk (e.g., missing machine guards are ordered and machinery locked out/tagged out until replaced). 

4. Act: We review results, adjust, and continually improve.

These actions precede and inform the next planning cycle.

  • Identify and ensure resolution of any escalations related to items critical to safety.
  • Celebrate wins and be sure to communicate any risks removed.
  • Align on goals and communication between employers.
  • Communicate risk through an established hierarchy of leadership and controls.
  • Ensure all items identified during the "check" phase are built into the next planning cycle.

By taking this structured plan/do/check/act (PDCA) approach, each employer contributes to safety in a joint-employer work environment. Alignment with short-term and long-term goals is critical to define expectations, as well as support an established cadence around the PDCA process for the joint-employer team.

The PDCA process should serve as a simple yet powerful tool to keep both employers aligned on managing—and maintaining—acceptable levels of risk. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, a fresh assessment of the risks affecting your organization, together with a commitment to building and implementing a strong framework (like the ISO 45001 standard), should place you on the same path as best-in-class organizations.