I guess there are a couple of answers to this question. It depends on what type of safety management system we’re talking about and what you want it to achieve.

Before looking at these questions it would be useful to describe just what a safety management system is or at least what I mean by the term so you at least have some understanding about what I’m rambling on about.

For me a safety management system is a documented set of policies, procedures and work instructions that describe how a business manages and minimises the risk of injury to its workforce. There are some expansions to this but this is essentially what I’m talking about.

Now back to the original questions. Why do you want a safety management system? I doubt that it’s because you have a vacant spot on your bookshelf that you need to fill with another folder that no one reads. Is it because you need one so you can bid on a new contract that requires you to have one? Are unions/regulators giving you a hard time because you don’t have any safety documentation? These reasons are not as uncommon as you might think and before you spend a stack of time and money on a safety management system be sure you understand what you want from one. There are a stack of internet sites that will sell you a system and some will even customise them to suit your industry. There are probably not quite as many consultants and business associations who will provide you with a stack of fancy folders filled with printed paper with your company logo at the top that will also fit the bill.

Beware of this “cookie-cutter” approach though because it does have its pitfalls. I was once reviewing the safety management system of a contractor who’d engaged a consultant to develop a safety management system because it was a requirement of the contract specification. However, there was a major problem with the manuals he provided – he was going to have his work crews working 12 metres above ground and there wasn’t a single mention anywhere in his safety manuals about how the height safety issues inherent in the job would be managed. He had paid a lot of money to get a safety management system from a consultant who knew nothing about his business or the way he worked and it was money wasted because his tender didn’t get past the first review simply because of this gap in the documentation. For this contractor the safety management system obviously didn’t work because it didn’t get him the job which was why he bought it in the first place. However, for many others this approach has worked and has been enough to satisfy whatever external demands were placed on the business.

Internal pressures can also lead to business owners looking for easy, cheap quick fix solutions. Stroppy employees, shop stewards, H&S representatives or workers who are having a lot of injuries – having a safety management system sitting on the shelf allows you to point to it the next time someone gets hurt and tell them to read it and follow the safety rules. Like those systems developed to cope with external pressures, this type of system may also fulfill what it was expected to do but neither approach will do much to reduce the number of incidents and injuries your business is experiencing and this is the true test of how effective a safety management system. Why? Because they are put in place to create an appearance of having a safety management system and that’s all they do and if that’s all you want then they’ll fit the bill.

However, if you genuinely want to do something about reducing the number of incidents and injuries happening to you and your workforce then a properly developed and implemented safety management system is essential.

A good system will be relevant to what you do and how you do it and it should integrate with other management systems that you have in place. It should focus on reducing risk not reducing injuries – the latter comes from the former not the other way around. It should encourage reporting injuries and incidents not hiding them. When incidents or injuries are reported a good system will seek to find out what went wrong and how it can be corrected rather than who is to be blamed. It will encourage input from the workforce not be another command and control system for management. It will have performance measures other than the number of injuries and incidents that are happening and mechanisms for these measures to be regularly reviewed to ensure that targets and goals are being met.

Such a system is not just a folder on the shelf but is a living thing. It changes constantly as new ways of doing things are identified, new goals are established and knowledge is acquired. It is not a quick fix, it is not necessarily the cheapest or easiest option. It requires ongoing commitment from all of the players – workers, supervisors, managers, owners, boards of directors. And it is not fail-safe. A good safety management system is not a guarantee that workplace incidents and injuries won’t happen but at least the system will allow those involved some degree of comfort in knowing that they did their best to avoid them.

So, to answer the question: Yes, safety management systems do work and will deliver whatever you want them to – you just have to know what you want them to deliver.