Making Your SMS Work for You

13 Aug
SMS Best Practice Tips


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A Safety Management System (SMS) is a systematic organization of policies, processes, programs, procedures, and records. Like other management systems, an SMS is built on the Plan, Do, Check, Act/Adjust (PDCA) cycle. Ideally, safety-related activities are planned, done, checked (through auditing, inspections, investigations), and finally reviewed by both local and executive management to facilitate continuous improvement (i.e., adjust).

Keys to a Successful SMS

The primary purpose of an SMS is to effectively manage safety-related risks. But how does an organization ensure that its SMS—new or existing—actually does this? Kestrel has compiled the following best practice tips for implementing an effective SMS:

  1. All employees with management or supervisory responsibilities must be visibly and conspicuously committed to safety and the SMS. Management demonstrates leadership and promotes commitment to improving safety performance through active and visible participation. It is up to management to routinely demonstrate that this is not just the “flavor of the month” but the organization’s way of doing business. (Choudhry, Fang & Ahmed, 2008; Hansen, 2006; Lyon & Hollcroft, 2006; OSHA, 2015)
  2. Employees are engaged in the SMS—emotionally and cognitively. Employees must understand how the SMS works and believe in the value that it offers them and the organization. (Wachter & Yorio, 2014; Moraru, Babut & Cioca, 2011)
  3. The SMS is integrated into other business objectives and aligned with other in-place management systems (e.g., quality, environmental). The SMS should support the company’s goals and objectives. Aligning and integrating with other systems further improves efficiency, consistency, and understanding. This also provides the flexibility needed to function in a dynamic business environment. (Hansen, 2006)
  4. There are clearly defined safety policies and principles. Policies should be established, communicated, and updated, as necessary. (Hansen, 2006)
  5. The SMS establishes challenging objectives, goals, and plans. High standards of performance that are tracked and measured ultimately lead to performance improvements. (Hansen, 2006; OSHA, 2015)
  6. Contractors and other third parties are effectively managed. Contractors, suppliers, and others must be assessed and monitored for their capabilities and performance. Clear performance standards should be established to ensure that these third parties meet needs and uphold safety management expectations. (Hansen, 2006; OSHA, 2015)
  7. The SMS ensures compliance with legal and other requirements. The SMS should help the organization to measure and verify compliance with applicable legal and regulatory requirements. (Hansen, 2006)
  8. There is effective communication about the SMS, including clearly defined roles and responsibilities. Employees need to understand the purpose of the SMS and their roles in achieving related goals and objectives. (Hansen, 2006; OSHA, 2015)
  9. Staff receive continuous safety training and development opportunities. Safe operations rely on well-trained employees and contractors who understand the SMS and how to perform their jobs in the safest ways possible. (Choudhry, Fang & Ahmed, 2008; Moraru, Babut & Cioca, 2011; Lyon & Hollcroft, 2006; OSHA, 2015)
  10. The organization is committed to hazard identification, risk assessment, and implementing effective controls. Identifying, assessing, and prioritizing hazards can mitigate risks to employees, customers, contractors, and the general public. Procedures should be put into place to continually identify workplace hazards and evaluate risks. Doing so must be a continuous process with periodic inspections to identify new hazards. (Hansen, 2006; OSHA, 2015)
  11. The organization conducts injury and incident investigations, produces reports, and follows through on corrective actions. Effective incident investigations provide the opportunity to learn about and improve safety performance. Investigations should identify the root cause and contributing factors, determine and track corrective actions, and share lessons learned across the organization to prevent recurrence. Perhaps most importantly, the organization should refrain from using the investigation to figure out who to blame for the incident. Fault-finding, rather than fact-finding, leads to mistrust and a negative safety culture. (Singh, 2014; OSHA, 2015)
  12. Audits provide the opportunity for ongoing re-evaluation and to demonstrate a strong commitment to continuous improvement. The SMS must be regularly reviewed to ensure that it is delivering consistent, desired performance. Planning and implementing internal audits helps verify whether safety processes and activities are meeting goals and creating the desired outcomes. Audits also help determine the effectiveness of the SMS and uncover new opportunities to systematically guide the PDCA continual improvement process. Sharing best practices and lessons learned further promotes ongoing improvement. (Hansen, 2006; Choudhry, Fang & Ahmed, 2008)
  13. Risk-based, data-driven decision-making is informed by both leading and lagging indicators. While lagging indicators provide valuable information for SMS improvement, leading indicators provide that information without waiting until someone gets hurt. Advanced statistical techniques and predictive analytics can help predict where and when an incident will happen based on leading indicators. Organizations can make drastic safety performance improvements by making a strategic, sustainable investment in gathering and analyzing leading indicators.
  14. Implementation is guided from the top down; buy-in is obtained in all levels of the organization. Ownership of the SMS resides with the safety department and executive management, while ownership of implementation and performance resides with all departments and operations. Safety should be continually reinforced as a line-organization responsibility. (OSHA, 2015; Choudhry, Fang & Ahmed, 2008; Moraru, Babut & Cioca, 2011)
  15. The SMS builds on and improves what already exists. The SMS should fit within the organization’s existing business structure and be tailored to the organization’s needs, operations, risks, processes, culture, and existing strengths.

SMS Benefits

For organizations that are able to implement a strong SMS, there can be many benefits. For example, the Health and Safety Executive in the UK (Greenstreet Berman Ltd, 2006) published six case studies in 2006 illustrating the benefits of implementing an SMS. Some of the business benefits identified in these case studies included the following:

  • 50% reduction in absenteeism
  • Static or decreased insurance premiums
  • Access to wider market based on improved safety outcomes

Another case study published in 2010 describes Newell Rubbermaid’s SMS success, as the company realized an 80% reduction in recordables and an 81% reduction in workers compensation costs after implementing a proactive SMS (Zahn, 2010).

In general, most organizations that adhere to the best practices described above may realize:

  • Improved health and safety performance and compliance
  • Greater operational efficiency
  • Reduced injuries and injury-related costs
  • Lower insurance premiums by demonstrating to insurers that risk is effectively controlled
  • Better morale when employees see employers actively looking after their health and safety
  • Improved reputation that comes with the public noticing the organization’s responsible attitude toward employees
  • Improved business efficiency and, correspondingly, reduced costs


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