Curado, Miguel Torres (1997), "MANAGING SAFETY IN CONSTRUCTION: ARE STANDARDS THE WAY FORWARD?", in "Health and Safety in Construction: Current and Future Challenges", Haupt, T.C. & Panteleo, D.R. eds., CIB, Cape Town.

Managing Safety in Construction:
Are Standards the way Forward?

Miguel Torres Curado
Instituto Superior Técnico,
Department of Civil Engineering
Av. Rovisco Pais, P-1096 Lisbon,


Management standards have been landing on the construction industry as a whole in successive waves. First came the now conspicuous quality management standards (usually on one of the variations in the ISO 9000 series or national equivalents). Environmental standards were quick to follow, and some expect their application to become rapidly as omnipresent as that of quality management standards.

At this stage we should expect that a number of interests will quickly move towards the development of Occupational Safety & Health management standards. Several countries developed (or are developing) standards on their own. The International Organization for Standardisation has also been discussing the matter.

Having in mind the mixed feelings and application results emanating from the ISO 9000 standards, also starting to be felt around the ISO 14000 standards, this is the right moment to question and discuss the future for Occupational Safety & Health management.

This paper seeks to benefit from previous experience in quality and the environment to analyse the possible benefits and drawbacks of going ahead with standards for Occupational Safety & Health management.

It assumes a behavioural approach, considering that obviously different situations require different solutions. It develops the hypothesis that no panacea solution can be found for managing Occupational Safety & Health in the construction industry, implying that situational approaches are the most adequate.

Keywords: Safety, Management, Standards, Situational Management


During the last ten years we have accompained the emergence, development and widespread impact of the standards for quality management. The last five years witnessed the initial steps on what appears to be very much the same track for environmental management standards.

In the past efforts to improve our industry’s dismal safety record have focused on technology and regulation. Although positive, these efforts have been clearly insufficient. However, companies are now beginning to realise that Occupational Safety & Health management issues cut across all functions and organisational departments. Recently the advent of Occupational Safety & Health Management has been gaining terrain, since the industry must deal not only with technology but with the human factors as well. The prospect of having an approach to OS&H management based on standards is also looming on the horizon.

The International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) created within its Technical Committee 207 an ad hoc working group with the purpose of evaluating the desirability for standardisation in this area. In a meeting of ISO’s Technical Management Board (September/96 in Geneva) it was decided that at present no further actions should be taken to initiate activity in the field of Occupational Safety & Health management standards. This decision is expected to be reviewed before the end of the century. The TMB also considered that the need for the development of such standards may arise in the future.

Such a decision allows time for the discussion of the virtues and problems of approaching Safety & Health management by way of standards. Still there are multiple signs of a move in this direction, e.g.:

    • The British Standards Institute published BS 8800:1996 "A Guide to Health and Safety Management Systems". Across the Irish sea the National Standards Authority of Ireland produced a standard for the same area based on ISO 14004.
    • Standards Australia and Standards New Zealand issued the draft DR 96311:1996 "Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems - General Guidelines on Principles, Systems and Supporting Techniques" (the standard is expected in November/97). In fact Australia had its first standard for safety and health published in 1952, with the present form (AS 1470) dating from 1986.
    • In Spain AENOR tackled the question with documents for both the Safety & Health management system and the procedures to audit it, by means of UNE 81900:1996 "Prevention of Occupational Risks. General Rules for the Implementation of a Management System for the Prevention of Occupational Risks" and UNE 81901:1996 "Prevention of Occupational Risks. General Rules for the Assessment of Management Systems for the Prevention of Occupational Risks. Audit Process".
    • In the Netherlands the NNI published the draft NPR 5001:1996 "Model of an Occupational Health and Safety Management System".
    • The Norwegian national body for standardisation, NSF, published in 1996 "Management Principles for Enhancing Quality of Products and Services, Occupational Health and Safety, and the Environment".
    • ISO’s Technical Committee issued in 1996 the draft ISO/DIS 14690 "Petroleum and Gas Industries. Health, Safety and Environment Management Systems".
In certification organisations and consultant circles talk of certifying OS&H management systems is often encountered. Increasing competitiveness, or even saturation, in the markets for services in quality and environmental management is probably not strange to this phenomenon.

On whether this movement will evolve swiftly or slowly the construction industry as a whole will have little say. Nevertheless whatever the main global trend is, our industry will hardly escape its influence.

At this moment in time it is our aim to create debate on the necessity and value of having (or not) standards and certification as a cornerstone of OS&H management.

Further, the question should be enlarged to whether there are in fact best approaches to managing OS&H, or quite simply approaches which fit well a particular organisations in specific contexts.

In the context of the construction industry several paths have been advocated for the scope and placement of OS&H management within the management of companies as a whole.

The way of integration in (or with) quality management systems has been experimented and is advocated by numerous authors (inter alia Berg, (1994); McCabe, (1994); Lo, (1996)). Some consider this process only within the scope of Total Quality Management (e.g. Adrian et al. (1994)). An even broader perspective is adopted by authors like Smallwood (1996) who stresses the importance of a holistic approach to occupational health and safety incorporating contributions by all stakeholders. Dias & Curado (1996) remark that OS&H concerns may develop adequately in the company’s management systems by the use of an extension of Quality Function Deployment (QFD) techniques […] widened to include the "voices" of all the relevant stakeholders.

Others prefer to associate Occupational Safety & Health risks to Environmental risks, some emphasising the context of project management (e.g. ECI (1992)). The triple integration of Quality, Environment and Safety & Health is also increasingly mentioned (Ayoade and Gibb, 1996).

However on the terrain, the management of Occupational Safety & Health issues more often than not is made isolated from other systems. At present it seems that companies are more committed to comply to the constraints of increasingly stringent regulations (particularly in the EU and the US) and client requirements than to implementing voluntary systems.

2. The Pros and Cons of OH&S Standardisation & Certification

Assuming that any new standards will be similar in character to the ISO 9000 and 14000 series, let us now dwell briefly on some of the potential advantages and drawbacks of standards based Occupational Safety & Health management systems and their third party certification.

The main strength of a standard based approach to OS&H management lies in the requirement to systematically identify and describe formal human processes, analyse hazards, assess risks, prescribe control measures, specify procedures and verify that they are functioning (Waring, 1996).

The application of standards is expected to result in an improved set of documentation. Such documentation will not only avoid recurring errors but will also allow the shortening of the length of a worker’s learning curve. The risk exists that an excessive emphasis on documentation may result in mere ‘paper systems’, which exist for their own sake, hiding the real purpose of achieving improvement in Occupational Safety & Health conditions.

The OS&H management system being based in written procedures will allow for the radical reduction of the occurrence of ‘fire extinguishing’ situations. It will reinforce the risk management initiatives of the companies. In markets with an aggressive legal climate it will limit their legal liability by showing due diligence. The procedures will attempt to forecast all relevant situations and the appropriate reactions. Systematic data collection defined in each procedure will contribute to better management control.

No matter how much care was devoted to the writing of procedures, Murphy’s law dictates that unexpected situations are bound to happen. Detailed procedures may however hinder the companies’ flexibility and creativity, inhibiting the capacity to adapt quickly to new situations. Compliance with standards and manuals is not everything, and it may lead to an unsubstantiated appearance of prediction and control.

The regular audit of the OS&H management system contributes to keeping the system at adequate levels of performance, avoiding its ageing and promoting its improvement. The use of independent auditors may bring to light problems that failed to be identified by the organisation itself. However, the danger that those being audited make preparations merely for audit purposes should not be discarded.

Companies with systems based on standards can easily present their systems to clients, regulators and other stakeholders, since their are based in an uniform framework. If companies choose to certify their systems they may enjoy marketing advantages not available to those companies that kept their systems from outside scrutiny. The possible development of international recognition of OS&H management systems certification may also allow for facilitated access to foreign markets. However third party certification has costs that have to be met, and compared with the possible benefits. The risk also exists that companies will take OS&H management systems certification as an end in it self, leading to loss of interest once the certificate is awarded.

The project oriented character of the construction industry imposes on all those involved in each project a large number of short-lived interfaces. An uniform approach to Occupational Safety & Health management would provide the tools for better communication. Considering that often hazards appear due to communication problems, misunderstandings or incompatibilities between systems of the several players in each project this is a non negligible advantage. Naturally it can argued that such a goal can also be attained through regulation.

Standards for Safety & Health management systems may have some value as far as ‘safety assurance’ is concerned. The systems resulting from this effort are bound to be oriented towards compliance and consistency, excellence in safety management could be beyond such approach.

The use of standards for quality and environmental management happens on a voluntary basis, leading sometimes to a notion that such a decision is a luxury that companies can afford. However good occupational safety and health can never be seen as a luxury. It must be considered an important goal to all stakeholders, with impacts that go far beyond shear business performance or public image, and reach deep into ethical questions and basic human rights.

Companies with sufficient ability and willingness may endeavour in attaining excellence in the field of occupational safety and health without the need for a prefab road-map. Other, less prepared, firms may have a lot to benefit from a detailed and structured approach to OS&H management.

Similarly to quality and environmental management, the danger exists that some companies will use standards as nothing more than a marketing instrument (Curado and Dias (1996)), by way of third party certification schemes, with little or no real improvements.

The responsibilities for OS&H are not solely a management issue, resting also with employees, workers, regulators and other stakeholders. Therefore a management standard may not be appropriate as a framework for relations between all the parts.

Finally, although the standards can relate well to the systematic aspects of management they are inappropriate for tackling the systemic aspects. We consider unfeasible any attempt of standardisation of essential factors such as organisational culture or worldview. (In fact the discussion could be extended to whether the field of management is amenable to standardisation at all.)




3.1 Situational Leadership

A framework for tackling the problem of selecting the best approach for implementing OH & S management may be developed from the work in situational leadership by developed by Hersey et al. (1996).

The situational leadership model advocates that there is not a single best leader behaviour. Its authors defend that the leader behaviour should be adapted to the readiness (mixture of willingness and ability) of the follower. This model is illustrated in Figure 1.


Figure 1: Situational Leadership Model

The situational theory is well pictured in the metaphor by Bate (1994): What is most important is the extent to which there is ‘fit’ between the form and its environment. There are no futile arguments in biology about the relative superiority of a jelly fish over an octopus.

That is to say that leadership will have better chances of succeeding in the absence of a phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, defined by Festinger (1957) as the contradiction between behavioural patterns and belief systems.

According to research quoted by Barrett (1993) the ‘average western man’ tends to have a behaviour that is strong on the ‘participating’ and ‘selling’ sectors, implying high relationship concerns. Technical people, on the other hand, are more task oriented, showing behaviours associated with the ‘selling’ and ‘telling’ sectors. To make things more complex, construction professionals seem to be somewhere in between the two previous cases, having ‘selling’ as the main style and ‘participating’ and ‘telling’ as subsidiary styles (Figure 2).


Figure 2: Typical leadership styles (Barrett, 1993)

The original situational leadership model was challenged on theoretical grounds by Nicholls (1985). In his opinion the model lacks consistency, continuity and conformity. Nicholls states that: It is inconsistent in the way it connects concern for task/relationships with ability/willingness. […] lacks continuity since it requires willingness to appear, disappear and reappear as the development increases. Finally, it runs counter to conformity in that it does not start with a style of high task and high relationship for a group that is simultaneously unable and unwilling. As far as we are aware this author’s objections, like the model in the first place are not based on published empirical evidence.

3.2 Situational Approach to Change

A generalisation of this model to organisational change constitutes a tempting hypothesis. That is to say that the adequacy of an approach to change cannot be judged per se, but only in the presence of data regarding "organisational readiness". That would go against the panacea treatment some solutions receive from consultants, self styled gurus and sometimes also from practitioners and academics.

If such hypothesis were to be valid than very procedural approaches to change ("telling") would perform better with low levels of organisational readiness. Conversely, more loose approaches ("delegating") would have their ideal terrain in organisations with high readiness.

A number of shades of grey can be found in between these extremes, corresponding to different levels of organisational readiness and in consequence of a varying balance between the dimensions of relationship and task behaviour.

Hersey et al. (1996) formalised the generalisation of the situational leadership model to organisational transformation, as depicted in Figure 2. Along the continuum of the bell shaped curve they consider four main types of approaches:


Figure 3: Situational Leadership for Transformation

This notion of organisational readiness is naturally valid only in the context of each type of transformation under analysis. Therefore organisational readiness cannot be assessed in absolute terms. It could be related to the predominant world view in the organisation and the guiding criteria associated with it. However the readiness can vary a lot depending on the intended change.

Accompanying the generalisation from follower to organisational readiness the authors change the dimensions of relationship vs. task behaviour to inspiring vs. structuring actions. It is not obvious that such a change is necessary at all, specially considering the adaptation of the original model to systems theory and to areas like soft systems (vide e.g. Checkland (1969))

Hersey et al. (1996) also introduce the application of the model in Figure 2 to implementing quality management. They apply the concept of organisational readiness to quality. This is done by means of the quality readiness model presented below in Figure 3.

In this model the concept of quality readiness is related to quality ability and quality willingness. The authors define four different levels of quality readiness in terms of the quality-related culture:

QR-4: The quality culture;

QR-3: The individualistic culture;

QR-2: The participative culture;

QR-1: The isolated culture.


Figure 4: Quality Readiness Model

3.3 Occupational Safety & Health Management: The Contingency Approach

The natural human aversion to change usually means that on a first instance problems will be approached adapting solutions from related problems. For instances a company with experience in ISO 9001 will probably feel tempted to enter Occupational Safety & Health management via standards, limiting the mental discomfort of change. However from a situational point of view this may or may not be the best approach.

The numerous approaches Occupational Safety & Health Management that are currently being used or discussed can also be placed in different locations along the model for organisational transformation (Figure 2), showing enforcing, enabling, enlisting or endorsing character.

In graphical terms these approaches to change in implementing Occupational Safety & Health management can be plotted in a variation of the situational leadership for transformation matrix:


Figure 5: Situational Transformation in H & S Management

An alternative classification for different types of safety management systems proposed by Waring (1996) relates well to the previous one. This author, although not having an explicit situational attitude, considers that such management systems can be:

If we look not solely at the ‘customers’, but at the wider group of a company’s ‘stakeholders’, then an organisation’s Occupational Safety & Health readiness (Figure 5) may tentatively be defined much along the same lines as the quality readiness model.

This model, however, may lack a real contingency posture, since it emanates from Hersey et al. quality readiness model (Figure 3) and these authors seem to believe in the superiority of the Quality Culture, over other possibilities. On the other hand such a posture may be interpreted as a framework for assessing the type of culture (and therefore the readiness) without establishing judgements on its intrinsic value.


Figure 6: Safety & Health Readiness Model

Having in mind the considerations made in the previous section, it is at this stage tempting to hypothesise that a successful implementation of Occupational Safety & Health management is influenced by the adjustment of the chosen approach to the organisation’s OS&H readiness.

In graphical terms this is to say that: for a Company X the most adequate combination of inspiring/structuring actions can be read by tracing a vertical line intersecting the bell shaped curve at the diagnosed level of environmental readiness (Figure 7).


Figure 7: Theoretical Choice of Management Approach for a Given Readiness

To our knowledge there is no published empirical evidence to support this hypothesis. Research to be done on this hypothesis would attempt to provide help in supporting or discrediting it. Insights from such research would also contribute to enrich the vision of the broader situational leadership/transformation theory.

In its essence the hypothesis can be assimilated to a Darwinian perspective on the life of management systems. It reflects the belief that adaptation to the "habitat" and capability of evolving with its changes are crucial for the performance and eventual survival of management systems.


Occupational Safety & Health management is still often seen as merely aiming at managing problems, instead of opportunities, and is considered as a necessary burden rather than as a potential resource. We have not yet reached the position in time where Occupational Safety & Health management becomes flavour of the month, as already has happened with quality and is now happening with environmental management. This waiting cycle has the virtue of allowing for the maturing of ideas, avoiding the repetition of errors already occurred in related fields.

Although some consultants will persuade almost any audience that standards are God’s gift to management plenty of other approaches are available. Solutions for Occupational Safety & Health management should not be taken at face value. The relevance of each approach can be judged per se, but only within the context of each company and its environment. Each approach may be valid and may have a role in the implementation of capable OS&H management, as long as the limitations and repercussions of reductionist attitudes are fully recognised. However, sometimes the approach followed may suit better the interests of the consultancy practice selling it rather than the company where it is actually implemented.

The developments within the construction industry can hardly escape the main tendencies of the economy as a whole, however due care should be taken to avoid gross misfits, resulting from the adaptation of approaches that fail to take into account the industry’s particularities.