Lessons in EHS History: The Secret to Creating Positive Change

ISO 9001, ISO 14001, ISO 22000…for many EHS & quality professionals worldwide, these are management system standards they refer to on a daily basis. But chances are there’s a lot you don’t know about the organization behind these standards, or the secret to its success.

Each year the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) selects a theme for World Standards Day, celebrated on October 14. This year’s theme is “International standards ensure positive change.” In honour of World Standards Day, let’s take a look at ISO’s history and the kinds of positive changes its standards have inspired.

The Origin of ISO & World Standards

Picture taken at the founding of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in London, 1946. Image used with permission from ISO.

On October 14 in 1946, 65 delegates from 25 countries gathered in London, England and agreed to form the International Organization for Standardization. The organization would become known worldwide as ISO. This acronym is widely rumored to have been derived from the Greek word isos, meaning “equal,” though at least one original founder has claimed the connection is at best a lucky coincidence!

World War II had only recently ended and there was a great need for reconstruction and trade. ISO’s mandate, to create globally recognized workplace standards, was an encouraging step towards international collaboration. It was agreed that Geneva would be ISO’s headquarters, a distinction Switzerland secured by a majority of just one vote.

Fast Forward to the Present

Today, more than 160 countries are involved with ISO and the organization’s portfolio contains over 19,500 voluntary standards. ISO standards address a wide variety of topics such as climate change, social responsibility, food safety, energy efficiency, quality management and much more. These standards are used worldwide as strategic tools to improve the way people do business.

ISO series 24510 is one example of an ISO standard that’s contributing to positive change.

ISO standards have been involved in many positive changes. In a recent example, ISO developed a series of standards on drinking water and wastewater services aimed at helping the United Nations tackle the global water challenge. This series, ISO 24510, has been eagerly adopted in areas throughout Latin America and Africa (you can read more here).

The average consumer reaps the benefits of international standards in many ways. By removing trade barriers and enabling more companies to compete globally, ISO promotes more choices on the shelves. By helping businesses streamline their processes, ISO enables efficiency savings to be passed down to consumers in the form of reduced prices. By sharing best practices in manufacturing and testing, ISO empowers organizations to provide workers with the safest working conditions possible and consumers with the highest quality products.

Moral of the Story

These accomplishments are made possible by experts across the world who participate in the development of ISO’s standards, combining their collective experience and knowledge. In 2010 the organization launched ISO 26000, which focuses on social responsibility,and is the result of  collaboration between the biggest group of stakeholders yet – 400 experts and 200 observers from 99 countries weighed in on its development. All of this was made possible by a group of 65 individuals who gathered almost 70 years ago with a common goal in mind. It just goes to show what can be accomplished when people work together.

Those of us employed within the EHS and quality industry are especially lucky to work in a space that encourages collaboration and the sharing of best practices. Perhaps World Standards Day is a time we can ask ourselves to find new ways to work together – within our industry, our geographical location, or our company – to ensure positive change.

2 thoughts on “Lessons in EHS History: The Secret to Creating Positive Change

  1. It is interesting where the origin of the ISO was adapted and how far it has come along. Safety should be the number one priority whether your an employee or on the other end as a consumer.

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