World Health And Safety Norms At Risk? ISO or ILO?

ICEM Update, no. 9/2000, 8 February 2000

A row is brewing between two Geneva-based international agencies over who is to codify worldwide occupational health and safety management norms.

Workers' right to a global say on workplace health and safety could be under threat if the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) next month votes itself competent to tackle this complex issue.

Any ISO efforts on this would cut across work already well under way within the UN's International Labour Organisation (ILO). And the ISO, unlike the ILO, excludes organised labour.

The ILO sets ratifiable and binding international standards on a wide range of labour-related matters. Worker, employer and government representatives from all over the world meet on equal terms within this tripartite UN agency. All three groups draw up and adopt the ILO's standards, and all three monitor national governments' compliance with them once they are in force.

Occupational health and safety is a major focus of these ILO norms, and organised labour has been one of the main driving forces behind the adoption and application of the standards.

No such labour representation exists within the ISO, where strong corporate influence is brought to bear. The ISO is known mainly for two families of standards—ISO 9000 on quality management and ISO 14000 on environmental management. Through worldwide standardisation, ISO helps to speed the globalisation process by reducing technical barriers to trade.

Any ISO move into the health and safety field would also be market-driven. In fact, the voting proposal now before the ISO's national member organisations argues that it will enable a faster response to market needs than could be met through the development of a standard in partnership with the ILO ...

The proposal comes from influential ISO member the British Standards Institute. BSI wants to set up an ISO technical committee on occupational health and safety management systems, with the aim of developing a non-certifiable ISO standard based on [existing UK standard] BS 8800:1996. The ISO's national member organisations have until 10 March to vote on the British motion.

BSI, meanwhile, got the industrialists on board by issuing a joint communique on 21 January with the multinational companies' Industry Cooperation on Standards and Conformity Assessment (ICSCA). ILO, due to its scope and membership, is not an appropriate organisation to publish an international standard on occupational health and safety management systems, BSI and ICSCA jointly opined. Instead, ILO is encouraged to participate actively in work in this area, through its liaison with ISO ...

If it gets the green light from its members, this will be the ISO's second attempt to wrest the health and safety brief from the ILO.

At the beginning of 1997, the ISO decided to discontinue its previous efforts to to draw up occupational health and safety management system standards. This followed an ISO seminar which found that the ILO, precisely because of its tripartite structure, was the more appropriate forum.

Subsequently, the ILO drafted non-mandatory guidelines on occupational health and safety management systems, drawing on a detailed review of standards and codes of practice worldwide. These guidelines are due to be tested this year.

The ILO is the proper forum for these efforts, declared Fred Higgs in Brussels today. Higgs is the General Secretary of the 20-million-strong International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions (ICEM), which has helped shape a number of major ILO health and safety initiatives.

We call upon ICEM member unions, and all others who believe that workers are entitled to a say on occupational health and safety management, to press their national ISO member organisations for a ‘no’ vote on this motion, Higgs said.

Global health and safety management standards in the workplace are not the sole prerogative of the big corporations, Higgs insisted. Organised labour must have a full say on this vital standard-setting activity. When workplace health and safety are at stake, workers are experts.