Health and safety management in the supply chain


Ruth Wilkinson, Head of Health and Safety (Policy and Operations) at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, explains why workplace health and safety matters across the entire supply chain.

Whatever industry you’re in, whatever the size of your business, whatever you produce or whatever service you provide, you’re unlikely to be operating in isolation. Like it or not, you’re part of a supply chain, which could be small and simple or complex, global and multi-layered.
It can include raw materials through to component parts to manufactured products that need to be assembled and then distributed, sold, consumed, used and reused, until their end-of-life and disposal (covering ‘upstream’ and ‘downstream’ activities).

In service industries as well as manufacturing, this involves human input (work) and movement throughout all these stages, even in workplaces where there is a high degree of automation.

For a business to succeed, all parts of its supply chain must function and enable efficient movement of the product or service to the next part of the chain. Any disruption can result in wasted materials, loss of work already expended, reputational or business impacts and financial loss. Minimising the risk of disruption in the supply chain clearly makes good business sense.

Occupational safety and health professionals have a key role in this process by identifying risks and opportunities, putting in place measures to eliminate or reduce risk, and providing assistance and knowledge on legal requirements. There are obvious moral and ethical reasons why you, as a responsible employer, should protect your workers from harm. Doing so enhances your business resilience, reinforces your brand reputation and increases predictability in your productivity and service levels.

But, precisely because your business is part of a supply chain (whether at its head or at one of the links further down), it’s important to extend these safeguards, proportionately, as far as you can to your suppliers and subcontractors, as well as to those for whom you are the supplier. In the end, it all reflects back on your business.

Some common issues

Smaller supplier organisations may have less sophisticated and well-resourced health and safety assistance and arrangements. They may also experience cost pressures which could lead to more intense work regimes, changing terms and conditions and non-standard forms of employment, which will all have an impact on safe and healthy practices.

Organisations within the supply chain may have different understandings or standards of workplace health and safety, and may have poor governance, resulting in poor labour practices and perhaps even the risk of modern slavery conditions.

Although those at the head of the supply chain may attempt to influence the health and safety management of their primary tier 1 suppliers, they may not have visibility further down the supply chain. Time must be invested in devising health and safety solutions that are manageable and proportionate to the supplier, with a level of risk acceptable to the customer.

Some approaches

Quality and cost are key elements of procurement strategies to select suppliers – but workplace health and safety systems also should be included as a criterion for selection.

Effective and appropriate use of health and safety certification schemes can be used to ensure contractors’ competence.
The head or client company can set expectations through their supply chain, which can be monitored and audited.

Occupational safety and health should be seen as part of a company’s code of conduct for its suppliers and a key element of its social sustainability efforts.

People at the heart

All this matters because no one should expect to come home injured or made ill because of their work. Stakeholders expect businesses to take their social responsibilities seriously and prioritise people’s safety and health. Customers are informed, expectant and ready to voice their opinions if they are dissatisfied. This means not just individual consumers, but also companies who do not want health and safety bad news stories about their suppliers.

At every stage of the supply chain, humans add value to the commodity or service that is being produced. The protection of that resource is a necessary part of good business management. If companies invest in and value their people, this will lead to value creation across the business.


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