KANBrief 2/13

The role of standardization in prevention

At the German Social Accident Insurance, it has become a tradition to meet on Ash Wednesday at the "Dresden Prevention Forum" to learn about strategically relevant topics and to promote discussion of them. This year, the forum addressed the subject of "standardization and testing" for the first time. Around 70 delegates discussed the potential contribution of these instruments to the prevention of accidents.

What role does standardization have to play in the prevention work conducted by the accident insurance institutions? In one of the three fora held at the event and together with the Safety and Health Department of the German Social Accident Insurance (DGUV), KAN presented the changing world of standardization: a world in which fast-track standardization products produced with a low level of consensus are increasingly penetrating the market as alternatives to conventional standards. A world which threatens to standardize us, if we do not play our part in shaping it. As yet, participation by experts in standardization continues to be high in both its quality and scale. This call for participation is therefore made with an eye to the future, since we can expect a continual decrease in the available personnel capacity.

"Prevention from the outset": that would be an appropriate way to describe the significance of standards in the area of product safety. Testing, the tool regarded as inseparable from standardization, has even come to be regarded as an integral part of product development. This explains why around 60% of the products in the area subject to harmonization fail the first test: manufacturers consciously hope to gain valuable information from the test itself.

In the body of state rules and regulations and those of the German Social Accident Insurance Institutions, the role of standards is secondary, but nevertheless not insignificant. Standards support the rules and regulations in cases for example where measurement methods or definitions are required. Standards are also frequently referred to in regulatory documents, which in turn raises the question as to whether they should not therefore also be made available free of charge. This is a question that the social partners in particular consider relevant.

The health and safety of workers at work: increasingly a focus of standardization activity

A glance at European and international standards projects shows the concern to be warranted that standards developers are increasingly focusing their attention upon the health and safety of workers at work. KAN endeavours to oppose this trend, since the legal system of the EU makes, by definition, no provision for standardization in this area. The current push by the British Standards Institute (BSI) to standardize OSH management systems at international level is regarded with strong scepticism by the German OSH lobby. KAN had already opposed the standardization of OSH management systems in the past, drawing attention instead to implementation at national level of the relevant guidelines of the International Labour Organization (ILO). KAN still sees no need for standardization in this area, a view shared by the Advisory Committee of the DIN Safety Design Principles Standards Committee. This view is only strengthened by the intended direction of the BSI as made clear in a preliminary draft: occupational safety and health is to be standardized as a first step, to be followed by topics such as the management of psychosocial risks, programmes concerning wellness and well-being, and the rehabilitation of employees.

We will continue to monitor these developments critically. It is not sufficient simply to report that no need exists for such standards. For this reason, and in consideration of the changes taking place within the sphere of standardization, the German Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (BMAS) has now undertaken to define the principles for dealing with standardization in the sphere of the health and safety of workers at work – whether at the launch of standardization projects in Germany, in the response to European and international initiatives, or in the use of such standards in the body of rules and regulations. A certain softening of opposition may appear unavoidable. Nevertheless, even should standards contain provisions governing the health and safety of workers at work, the body of state rules and regulations and those of the German Social Accident Insurance Institutions will continue to take absolute precedence.

For the delegates attending the Dresden Prevention Forum, the answer to the question concerning the role of standardization and testing was clear: they are powerful prevention instruments which offer scope for the design of safe and healthy workplaces. This function should be recognized and used.

Karl-Josef Thielen