Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems (OHSMS) – What Are They and Why Do I Need One?

What is a management system?

According to ISO 9001:2008 (the latest version of the Quality Standard and forerunner to various occupational health and safety (OHS) management system standards including AS/NZS 4801:2001), organisations must identify and manage numerous linked activities to function effectively.

It goes on to discuss the need for managing resources, inputs and outputs etc, making the point that only through a systematic or process approach will an organisation be able to maintain control. Put simply, a management system is the structure that enables organisations to manage the way they operate.

Why formalise?

Some may argue that organisations exist, possibly even flourish, without any form of management system. However, upon closer inspection, this is not the case. All successful organisations have values, policies, procedures, standard processes and practices. Whether documented or not, these are the components of that organisation’s system of management. By formalising this system, an organisation has the opportunity to further review its performance, formally determine what works and does not work, agree to the preferred processes and proactively manage its continuous improvement.

Pitfalls of buying an off-the-shelf OHSMS

An all too common response is for an organisation to seek to buy an OHS / WHS management system (OHSMS / WHSMS) ‘off the shelf’. Without the necessary contextualisation or engagement of relevant stakeholders during the design, are not only likely to be a wrong fit for the business but they often fail to gain the momentum to survive or could even be sabotaged from within the organisation.

A management system needs to be owned and operated by the organisation. No CEO worth their salt would dream to publish company vision, values or policy which they had simply downloaded from the internet and yet they may consider managing their workplace health and safety this way.

Pitfalls of designing a system

Unfortunately interpreting national or international standards and developing a compliant OHS / WHS management system can be quite complex. Even practitioners highly skilled in their relevant disciplines can find it difficult negotiating the process and producing something that meets the relevant criteria. Alternatively, many organisations end up with an OHSMS /WHSMS that meets all the requirements but results in a situation where their people are slaves to the documentation without seeing any actual added value to their processes or improvement in their workplace safety performance.


So if an ‘off-the-shelf’ system is not the right approach and your organisation does not have the internal expertise, what is the answer? In the same way CEOs and boards of directors seek independent legal advice, due diligence from an accounts auditing firms or the expert opinion of an engineer, there are many instances where the design, development, implementation and review of OHS / WHS management systems require external experts.

When seeking this expertise, consider the providers background, experience, qualifications and past successes. Furthermore, if the OHS / WHS consultant isn’t qualified to audit a management system to the applicable standard, then how could the design an OHS /WHS management system to meet it? If they have no actual industry experience then how will they adapt the cold hard pages of generic requirements to your business needs? It pays to ask around your network, seek referrals, do background checks and ask proposing OHS Consultants for relevant client references.


A well designed, developed and implemented management system can not only provide additional work and legal compliance but can be a valuable tool to driving your business to further OHS / WHS improvement.

For more information on OHS / WHS Management Systems, visit the OSHEM Solutions website [link below].