The main components of an OSHMS include both policy - a 'mission statement' for health and safety that provides a mechanism for management control and accountability and arrangements for implementation, monitoring (including audit) and continual improvement. Systematising these arrangements removes the potential arbitrariness of processes developed by a few individuals and provides an environment in which the whole workforce can be involved.

OSHMSs have developed through national and international co-operation. Some were boosted by legal developments such as the European Union (EU) Framework Directive 89/391/EEC1; others grew from industrial sector needs (eg Responsible care2 in the chemical industry). With the publication of International Labour Organization (ILO) guidelines3 in 2001, the international dimension came fully into focus. This guidance is structured in such a way that those with an interest in the general structure of OSHMSs - their history, linkages with regulatory regimes internationally, and the issues arising from integration with other management systems and business risk management - may wish to read sections 1–4.

Readers focusing on the detailed structure of an OSHMS, and the key issues involved in implementation, can use section 5. Sections 6 to 8 provide information on the advantages and disadvantages of OSHMSs, the issue of third-party certification, and how to get started. The Appendix contains a list of the main acronyms used in this guidance.

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