What is a Safety Management System?

Safety Management SystemA safety management system is just a collection of documents describing how a business intends to respond to safety matters. Some are good and some are not so good – a lot depends on why the system is developed in the first place and the commitment of the business to make it work.

The developers of some safety management systems appear to believe that the value of the system is determined by the weight of documents that make it up. Reams of documents of indeterminate length, full of jargon and irrelevancies – they’re a bureaucratic nightmare. The opposite is also true. Some systems are so brief and scant on detail that the whole set of documents would fit into your wallet. Neither approach has any real impact on the way a business operates nor achieves any significant improvement in safety performance.

So what makes a good safety management system? The first thing is the structure The documents making up a safety management system need to relate to each other in some fashion. Generally they fall into three categories – Safety Policy, Safety Procedures and Safe Work Instructions.



Safety Policy

Safety Management System Structure

Structure of a Safety Management System

I am convinced that policies would have to be one of the most useless pieces of documentation in any management system. They are statements of intent and documented commitment – what is termed in the current jargon as “aspirational”. They decorate the walls of reception areas and are generally only read by auditors who compare the contents with the requirements of the auditing standard. Of themselves they achieve little but are often a legal requirement and required by every safety certification standard I’ve seen so it’s best to just bite the bullet,prepare one, get it signed off and move onto more important matters.

Safety Procedures

Safety Procedures are the meat of the safety management system. They take the generalised statements of the safety policy and convert them into action. They describe what must be done, by whom and when. If they are effectively implemented, well written procedures can make a real difference to the way a business operates and substantially reduce the risk of injury.

Safety Forms

Many procedures require some sort of form to be completed. Entry permits, risk assessments, equipment registers, log books and so the list goes on. As big a pain as these forms seem, particularly to the people who must complete them, they are an important part of a safety management system. They go a long way to ensuring a consistent approach to dealing with safety matters, stimulate thoughts about the risks likely to be encountered and ways of avoiding or minimising them and overcome the failure of memory that we all face from time to time.

Safe Work Instructions

This category of documents would have to be the largest in a safety management system. They provide instructions for how specific tasks are to be done using the guidance provided in the safety procedures. As a result there are numerous possible sub categories including JSAs, SWMS, SOI, and so on.

When developing a safety management system other factors that should be considered include:


The culture of an organization is a crucial factor. All organisations have different ways of doing things, different relationships between people and between the layers of the organization and the safety management system should reflect these. However, it is not just about how different organisations work but how different parts of an organization work, the different risks they face and the way they interact with each other that is also relevant.

I have seen the design office of a construction company have daily safety meetings just because that was what the safety management system required. The problem was that the safety management system was framed around construction sites where the risks were changing all the time. This wasn’t the case in the design office but they had to go through the exercise. You can imagine how the people in the design office viewed the safety management system in particular and safety in general and these are the people that you want to take safety seriously because they are doing the design work.


All too often I’ve seen safety management systems that are more of a wish list about how the safety department would like things to be rather than reflecting how things actually are or could be. There is a difference between challenging current practices to achieve change to improve safety and having a safety management system that bears little resemblance to the realities of the workplace.

Having an impractical safety management system defeats the purpose of having one in the first place. It is viewed as unachievable or irrelevant by those expected to implement it and is therefore ignored and confirms an often held view that the safety people live in cuckoo land. It also increases an organisation’s liability if and when things go wrong because they will not have followed their stated procedure.

Legal Compliance

Safety law sets a minimum standard for a safety management system that is non-negotiable despite what some people in an organisation believe. If there is a legal requirement to do something then that is what must be done. Most safety law these days also have “catch-all” clauses requiring organisations to do all that is practical or possible to prevent injury. This means that there may be an expectation that a safety management system would exceed the minimum requirements of the law.

Certifying a Safety Management System

Many organisations now have their safety management system certified by a third party in the same way as quality, financial and environmental management systems are. This involves conformance to an external standard that may stipulate the content and structure of the system although most are based around what is to be achieved rather than how they are to be achieved (not all auditors recognise this distinction and this can be a cause of dispute during certification audits).

Integration of a Safety Management System

The integration of management systems is becoming increasingly common and makes a lot of sense. It prevents duplication, provides a similarity of approach, reduces costs and is also good for safety generally since the safety management system is viewed as just another part of how things are to be done.

An effective safety management system is essential to any organisation seeking to improve their safety performance and while there are probably other factors that need to be considered when developing a safety management system these, I believe are the primary ones.