Objectives & OHSAS 18001

| December 29, 2011


At the end of the year, our attention often focuses on planning – the setting of goals and objectives for the coming year.  This can be exciting – plans for launching new projects or products – or it can be depressing – setting aside time to organize old files.


Planning is a key component of an OH&S management system.  The planning section of OHSAS 18001 consists of 3 elements –

  • Identifying hazards and risks (4.3.1)
  • Identifying legal and other requirements (4.3.2)
  • Establishing objectives and programs (4.3.3)

Many organizations put a great deal of time and attention into identifying both their hazards and risks and their legal and other requirements. Often, less attention is paid to establishing objectives and programs.

This lack of attention to objectives and programs may be due, in part, to a lack of clarity about how “objectives” actually fit into a management system.  This lack of clarity about objectives, and their interrelationship with risk management, has been an issue of much heated discussion.  It has lead to a lack of consensus in ISO’s attempt to develop consistent definitions across all of its management system standards (see discussion of ISO’s MSS initiative).

One of the areas of confusion relates to the ownership of OH&S objectives.  Although individuals need to be assigned responsibility and authority for achieving OH&S objectives, OH&S objectives are organizational – not personal.  This is clear from the definition of OH&S objective in section 3.14 of OHSAS 18001.  An objective is a goal that an organization sets itself to achieve.   Therefore, OH&S objectives need to be set from an organizational perspective – not as individual performance targets.  This is a critical distinction.  It is the organization itself that is ultimately responsible for setting and achieving its objectives.  This responsibility cannot be shifted onto the backs of individual employees – such as the facility Safety Manager.

A second area of confusion relates to the use of the words “objective” and “risk” in two different contexts within the ISO management system standards and OHSAS 18001. 

The “top-level” meaning – used in defining both what a “management system” is and the meaning of the word “risk.” 

A management system is defined as a “set of interrelated or interacting elements to establish policy and objectives and to achieve those objectives” (ISO 9000, Section 3.2.1 & 3.2.2).  Risk is defined as “the effect of uncertainty on objectives” (ISO 31000, Section 2.1). Both of these definitions are focused on the strategic, organization-wide level of objectives.

This means that the overall “strategic level” objective of an OHSAS 18001 management system must be controlling (managing) OH&S risks in order to prevent injury and ill health to persons working under the control of the organization.  All other OH&S objectives flow from, and must be consistent with, this strategic-level objective.

The “functional level” meaning – used at a project, process or departmental level of an organization. 

This is the level at which most organizational objectives are set and managed.  Financial profitability and sales targets.  Product quality metrics.  Safety performance targets.  Waste reduction goals. 

The functional-level definition of an “OH&S objective”, as set out in section 3.14 of OHSAS 18001, is an “OH&S goal, in terms of OH&S performance, that an organization sets itself to achieve” (OHSAS 18001, Section 3.14).

Functional-level objectives are important.  They are where “the rubber hits the road” so to speak.  However, when evaluating OH&S performance and assessing overall risk management, the objective that must be kept foremost in mind is the strategic, top-level one.

At the end of the day, the question that must be answered is “Are we, as an organization, controlling our OH&S risks in a manner that prevents injury and ill health to those working for our organization?”

© ENLAR Compliance Services, Inc.(2011)

Category: OHSMS Implementation, Risk Management, Standards & Certification

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