Workplace health and safety management systems show promise

In brief

  • An overall recommendation in favour or against particular occupational health and safety (OHS) management systems cannot be made because of a lack of high quality studies.
  • Several studies mostly showed favourable evidence for OHS management system interventions. However, their quality was rated as moderate, and the number of studies was relatively low, given the diversity of management systems studied.
  • The message is not that these systems are ineffective, but that research is lacking for any single type of intervention.

Published: January 2007

Why was this review done?

OHS management systems have become common. These management systems aim to protect the health of employees through a systematic approach to OHS. They differ from traditional OHS programs by including stronger elements of evaluation and continuous improvement. One example of a management system approach is the Canadian Standards Association's voluntary Occupational Health and Safety Management standard. However, concerns have been expressed about the impact of particular systems. This systematic review examined the effects of the introduction of OHS management systems on health-related and economic outcomes.

How was the review done?

The reviewers searched eight electronic databases from their inception until July 2004. Studies were first assessed for whether they were relevant to the research question, and then for the quality of the methods used. After these steps, 13 met the quality criteria of the review team. The reviewers looked at the type of management system intervention, its implementation, intermediate results (such as increased action on OHS issues) and final effects including changes in injury rates. They also looked at economic outcomes such as work productivity. The results were combined and analyzed.

What did the reviewers find?

Only one of the 13 studies was of high quality in terms of methods used. Seven studies looked at a variety of voluntary initiatives, mainly based in large companies. Six examined mandatory ones, including systems in two Canadian provincial governments. Both types showed positive effects such as: decreases in injury rates and increased implementation. In addition, some voluntary systems showed a decline in disability-related costs, and some involuntary systems had increases in workplace productivity. However, most studies were only of moderate quality. Reviewers could not make an overall recommendation in favour or against particular OHS management systems.

What are some strengths and weaknesses of the review?

The systematic methods applied in this review ensured that the search is comprehensive and the quality assessment of individual studies is relatively objective. Because of the scope of the project, non-peer-reviewed articles were excluded.