Occupational safety and health management systems and workers’ participation

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Zofia Pawlowska, Central Institute for Labour Protection - National Research Institute, Poland


As an essential element of each occupational safety and health management system, workers’ participation influences its effectiveness. Numerous cases and experience confirm that workers participation in OSH management can result in improved safety, health and well-being of workers. The participation can be implemented as indirect (through representatives) or direct, weak or strong, formal or informal, etc. Development of workers participation in OSH management is supported by legal regulations as well as standards and guidance on OSH management systems.

Defining and characterizing workers’ participation

The general framework for developing workers’ participation in companies’ occupational safety and health (OSH) management has been established, among others, in numerous ILO conventions and resolutions as well as European Union directives. However, no definition of workers participation has been agreed internationally. According to Gonzales[1] workers’ participation can be defined as “a variety of processes and structures which enable, and at times encourage, employees to directly and indirectly contribute to and influence decision – "making in the firm and in the wider society".

The participation can refer to different aspects of company’s performance, such as for example ownership, business processes, employment or working conditions. For many decades workers’ participation in decisions related to employment and working conditions has been recognized as one of the most important factors. The participation can be implemented in different forms and depending on the approach adopted, it can be classified as direct or indirect, weak or strong, formal or informal, etc.

Indirect and direct participation

Indirect participation means participation through representatives. Direct participation, for which the term “employee involvement” is also used, has been defined as “opportunities which management provide, or initiatives to which they lend their support, at workplace level for consultation with and/or delegation of responsibilities and authority for decision making to their subordinates either as individuals or as groups of employees relating to the immediate work task, work organisation and/or working conditions”. Main forms of direct participation include individual consultation ('face-to-face' or 'arms-length'), group consultation (in temporary or permanent groups) and individual or group delegation[2][3].

Informative, consultative and delegative participation

Depending on the level of employees influence on management decision, participation can be informative, consultative, or delegative. Informative participation, which is the weakest one, means that workers and/or their representatives receive information in order to enable them to make themselves familiar with the subject matter (in the case of OSH management the information is related to OSH) and to examine it. This form of participation is related to top–down communication and does not ensure employees’ influence on a decision taken. Examples are meetings aimed at informing, making appropriate documents available to employees, etc.

Consultative participation assumes the exchange of views and establishment of a dialogue between the employees and/or their representatives and the employer, which requires two–way communication. In this case employees are encouraged to express their opinions on work-related matters. These opinions are to be taken into account at the decision stage. Delegative participation, which is the strongest one, is based on increased discretion and responsibility of employees to organise and do their jobs without reference back”[4].

Formal and informal participation

Workers participation can be implemented as a Formal or informal process. Formal participation is usually established according to legal regulations and specific rules or procedures. It can be achieved not only through workers councils, trade unions or formal workers OSH representatives but also thanks to safety circles, attitude surveys, suggestion schemes etc. Informal solutions are based on discussions and exchange of views between managers and employees.

Why employee participation in occupational safety and health management?

Workers participation in the management of occupational health and safety is an obligation resulting from legal requirements. Implementing participation is expected to increase awareness on OSH issues as well as enhance the employees’ commitment to health and safety, which will help to:

  • reduce accidents and ill health and the associated costs,
  • develop a positive health and safety culture,
  • increase job satisfaction,
  • increase quality and productivity at the workplace.

In the European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks (ESNER) performed in 2009 by European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, managers expressed opinion that employee participation is a key success factor for effective risk management, including psychosocial risks and emphasized the role of the social partners in OSH-related activities. This opinion has been confirmed by more frequent implementation of risk assessments and other OSH-related measures in companies with health and safety representatives[5].

Figure 1: Rates of absence due to accidents at work and implementation of different forms of participation

In the research performed in 2000 by Health and Safety Executive employers, employees and employee representatives positively assessed workers participation based on their experiences. Approximately 63% of employers and 80% of workers representatives have expressed opinion that consultation can result in benefits and improve health and safety[6].

According to the results of research performed in 192 Polish companies in 2004, accident absenteeism and sickness absence are significantly related to direct participation. Particularly, in companies that used face-to-face individual consultation, group consultation with temporary groups and individual and group delegation, lower accident absenteeism was recorded if compared with those lacking employees’ participation (Figure 1)[7].

It was concluded that direct workers participation had a positive impact on workplace safety, even if involvement was not directly related to safety[7].

Implementing employee participation in occupational and safety management

Basic legal requirements related to workers participation in occupational safety and health management

According to the Framework Directive 89/391/EEC[8] the main principles of occupational safety and health (OSH) management in each company should include: ­*responsibility of employers to ensure safety and health of workers at work, ­*responsibility of workers for occupational safety and health and co-operating with employer, ­*risk assessment and risk management, ­*participation, consultation and informing workers on the matters related to their health and safety.

To implement the participation in OSH management, workers’ representatives with specific responsibility for workers safety and health of workers should be elected, chosen or designated in companies in accordance with the national laws and/ or practices. They represent workers in all the matters relating to their safety and health protection at work. The scope of their activities results from legal requirements. The directive 89/391/EEC requires that workers should be informed and consulted in particular about the matters related to:

  • safety and health risks and protective and preventive measures and activities in the company and at the workplace,
  • designation of workers to implement measures concerning first aid, fire-fighting and the evacuation.

Additionally, workers and/or their representatives with specific responsibility for their safety and health should be consulted and entitled to submit proposals on:

  • measures which may substantially affect safety and health,
  • the designation of persons to carry out activities related to the protection and prevention of occupational risks and implementation of first aid, fire-fighting and evacuation measures,
  • information on risk assessment, preventive measures, accidents at work and other information related to health and safety,
  • the plans and organization of training activities.

The employer is obliged to ensure that workers representatives have sufficient amount of time and resources necessary to ensure effective participation.

Table 1: Type of health and safety indirect participation, by a company size

Some legal requirements have been defined to ensure that workers participation could be set in place and developed in companies in an indirect and Formal form, which is the primary goal. Depending on national regulations, workers councils, OSH committees or OSH representatives are established to represent workers in the matters related to OSH in companies of different size (Table 1)[9].

According to the results of the 2009 European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks (ESNER), health and safety committees have been established in almost 90% of the EU companies employing more than 500 employees and in app. 83% of the companies with 250–500 employees. In small companies participation through OSH representatives is less frequently implemented – this solution has been chosen by almost 60% of the companies with 10 to 19 employees and almost 70% of those employing 20–49 workers[5].

Implementation of workers participation in voluntary occupational safety and health management systems

The term 'voluntary OSH management systems' usually refers to the systems developed according to guidelines provided by different institutions, e.g. governments, standard associations, professional organizations, employer groups, insurance, etc.[10]

Figure 2: Workers participation as an element of the OSH management system according to ILO-OSH 2001 guidelines

Workers' participation is crucial for the successful performance of each OSH management system, as. emphasized especially in the ILO guidance on occupational health and safety management systems[11]. According to the ILO model of the OSH management system, workers participation is one of the most important elements to influence successful performance of other organisational elements (Figure 2)[11].

In OSH management system developed according to the ILO guidance, workers as well as their safety and health representatives should:

  • be consulted, informed and trained on all the aspects of OSH related to their work, including emergency arrangements,
  • take part in all activities in OSH management system, including the organization, planning and implementation, evaluation and further action to improve the OSH management system.

The indirect forms of participation such as safety and health committees or workers' safety and health representatives should be established in accordance with national laws and practice. To be efficient, workers representatives should have access to appropriate resources, including time for active participation in OSH-related activities.

ILO-OSH 2001 guidance emphasizes the need to implement indirect forms of participation such as safety and health committees or workers' safety and health representatives in line with national laws and practice. To be efficient, workers representatives should have access to appropriate resources, which includes time for active participation in OSH-related activities.

In the guidance, special attention is paid to workers’ participation in each element of the OSH management system. At the initial stage of organizing the system arrangements related to development of workers participation, activities can include[11]:

  • appointment a member (or members) of the senior management with responsibility, accountability and authority to promote the participation of all workers in activities related to OSH management,
  • promoting cooperation and communication,
  • providing appropriate resources to ensure effective workers participation,
  • ensuring effective communication between various levels and departments as well as between employees and their representatives,
  • making sure that feedback is given to questions and proposals submitted by workers and their representatives.

Workers and/or their representatives should actively participate in activities related to planning and implementing the OSH management system. It has been particularly emphasized for initial review and management of change. Workers and/or their representatives should be actively involved in preparations to changes at the workplace (such as new work methods, materials, processes or machinery) and especially in risk assessments before introducing changes.

It is also necessary to ensure workers participation in the evaluation of OSH management system. Workers and/or their representatives should be involved particularly in[11]:

  • investigation of the origin and underlying causes of work-related injuries, ill health, diseases and incidents to identify any failures in the OSH management system,
  • all stages of the workplace audit, including selection of the auditor and analysis of audit results.
Figure 3: Forms of participation (by their strength) in the companies with and without voluntary OSH MS

Actions for improvement should be performed with regard to workers’ recommendations on the basis of the results of audits and management review of the OSH management system.

The implementation of voluntary management system can support development of workers’ participation. In a study performed in 2008 in 81 companies, significant differences have been identified between workers’ participation in companies with and without voluntary OHS management systems[12]. The direct participation has been (approximately 2–3 times, depending on the form of participation) implemented more frequently in companies with voluntary OSH management system. Similarly, participation in decision making and consultations as well as informing of changes in advance are more likely to take place in these companies (Figure 3)[12].

Factors influencing workers participation in occupational safety and health management

Legal regulations as well as guidance and standards related to OSH management influence development of workers participation in OSH activities. In several surveys legal regulations have been identified as the main driver of implementing workers participation in OSH management. In companies with voluntary OSH management systems, the OSH policies and procedures can support their participation. However workers participation in OSH management is very often assessed as insufficient.

Published in 2004, the results of the assessment concerning practical implementation of the Framework Directives 89/391 provisions indicate that the participation process in enterprises has still not been organized in a satisfactory manner. As for main obstacles to higher participation that were identified in the assessment, they include as follows[13]:

  • general lack of knowledge about the rights of participation,
  • concentration on practical solutions and day-to-day business,
  • activities resulting from the participation in OSH activities are seen as too time-consuming and related to administrative charges,
  • lack of expertise and general knowledge: in general, workers or their occupational health and safety representatives are not prepared to discuss this e subject matter with the employer,
  • workers lack interest in the matters concerning their own safety.

Additionally, the delegation of responsibility to workers’ representatives and/or health and safety committees can often reduce the readiness willingness of individual workers to participate in occupational safety and health activities.

At the same time a number of studies[14][6] indicated that OSH committees could positively influence company’s OSH performance. The main factors influencing the effectiveness of OSH committees as well as other forms of workers participation include:[15]

  • senior management attitudes,
  • management commitment,
  • knowledge, expertise and training of workers and workers’ representatives,
  • communications between workers and managers,
  • commitment of the workers to participatory initiatives and OHS management:
  • perceived influence of the participatory activities on the health and safety level,
  • active involvement of trade unions.

It should be also remembered that outcomes of workers’ participation and their willingness to participate can vary in different situations. For example, direct participation in its delegative form can result in an increased level of stress at work when introduced without ensuring that workers have the knowledge and competences necessary to participate. In a lot of cases the time constraints, production responsibilities, lack of commitment or lack of interest in the OSH issues can negatively influence workers willingness to participate and the effectiveness of OSH participation.

Challenges in implementing effective participation

Creating conditions to stimulate and support the development of effective workers participation in the OSH management is a challenging task and requires among others:

  • development of organizational climate motivating workers’ participation; this can be achieved particularly by creating attitudes of cooperation, mutual respect and trust between management and workers;
  • ensuring workers’ ability to participate; this can be achieved particularly by appropriately defined subject of participation and providing workers with necessary training;
  • introducing effective top-down and bottom-up communication and ensuring that workers will receive responses to their questions and proposals;
  • ensuring that participation adversely affects neither workers nor managers;
  • ensuring adequate resources and time for participation;
  • providing appropriate trainings for managers and workers and their health and safety representatives including trainings in OSH-related matters and negotiations skills.


  1. González María C., ‘Workers’ Involvement at the Workplace and Job Quality in Europe’, Working Papers on the Reconcilliation of Work in Europe, REC-WP 08/2009, Dissemination and Dialogue Centre, Edinburgh, 2009. Available at: http://www.socialpolicy.ed.ac.uk/recwowepudiac/working_papers/
  2. Eurofound – European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, ‘New forms of work organization. Can Europe realise its potential? Results of a survey of direct participation in Europe’, 2005. Available at: http://www.eurofound.europa.eu/pubdocs/1998/03/en/1/ef9803en.pdf
  3. Eurofound – European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, ‘Employment through Flexibility – Squaring the Circle? Findings from the EPOC Survey’, Luxembourg, Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 1999. Available at: http://www.eurofound.europa.eu/pubdocs/1998/57/en/1/ef9857en.pdf
  4. Sisson K., ‘Direct participation and modernization of work organization’. European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, Luxembourg, 2000. Available at: http://www.eurofound.europa.eu/pubdocs/2000/29/en/1/ef0029en.pdf
  5. 5.0 5.1 EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks: Managing safety and health at work, European Risk Observatory Report, 2009. Available at: http://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/reports/esener1_osh_management
  6. 6.0 6.1 Hillage J, Kersley B, Bates P, Rick J., ‘The role and effectiveness of safety representatives in influencing workplace health and safety’, Contract Research Report CRR 268/2000, Health and Safety Executive, June 2000. Available at: http://www.hse.gov.uk/research/crr_pdf/2000/CRR00268.pdf
  7. 7.0 7.1 Widerszal-Bazyl M., Warszewska-Makuch M., ‘Employee Direct Participation in Organisational Decisions and Workplace Safety’, International Journal of Occupational Safety and Ergonomics (JOSE) 2008, Vol. 14, No. 4, pp. 367–78. Available at: http://www.ciop.pl/27978
  8. 89/391/EEC, Council Directive of 12 June 1989 on the introduction of measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health of workers at work (89/391/EEC), Official Journal of the European Communities, No. L 183, 29 June 1989. Available at: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=CELEX:31989L0391:en:HTML
  9. Eurofound – European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions ‘Health and safety at work in SMEs: Strategies for employee information and consultation’, 2010. Available at: http://www.eurofound.europa.eu/publications/htmlfiles/ef10461.htm
  10. Robson L., Clarke J. Cullen K. Bielecky A. Severin C., Bigelow P., Irvin E., Culyer A., Mahood Q. ‘The effectiveness of Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems: A Systematic Review’, Institute for Work and Health, Toronto, 2005.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 ILO – International Labour Organisation, ‘Guidelines on Occupational Safety and Health Management Systems. ILO-OSH 2001’, Geneva, 2001. Available at: http://www.ilo.org/global/publications/ilo-bookstore/order-online/books/WCMS_PUBL_9221116344_EN/lang--en/index.htm
  12. 12.0 12.1 Pawłowska Z., ’System zarządzania bezpieczeństwem i higieną pracy - wpływ na partycypację bezpośrednią’, Bezpieczeństwo Pracy - nauka i praktyka, 1/2009, pp. 13-15.
  13. EC – European Commission, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of Regions on the practical implementation of the provisions of the Health and Safety at Work Directives 89/391 (Framework), 89/654 (Workplaces), 89/655 (Work Equipment), 89/656 (Personal Protective Equipment), 90/269 (Manual Handling of Loads) and 90/270 (Display Screen Equipment), Brussels, 05.02.2004, COM(2004) 62 final. Available at: http://europa.eu/legislation_summaries/employment_and_social_policy/health_hygiene_safety_at_work/c11149_en.htm
  14. Shearn P., ‘Workforce Participation in the Management of Occupational Health & Safety’, HSL/2005/09 Available at: http://www.hse.gov.uk/research/hsl_pdf/2005/hsl0509.pdf
  15. HSE – Health and Safety Executive ‘Obstacles preventing worker involvement in health and safety’. Prepared by ECOTEC Ltd for the Health and Safety Executive, 2005. Available at: http://www.hse.gov.uk/research/rrpdf/rr296.pdf

Links for future reading

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Safe maintenance in practice — Success factors. Summary of an Agency report, 2010. Available at: http://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/factsheets/96


OSH: Safety and health management, Worker participation, Worker representatives, Safety and health representatives, Worker consultation, Information at work, Participation
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