The ISO 9001:2015 standard planted a legal nuclear bomb in the middle the standard, under clause 7.1.4 “Environment for the Operation of the Processes.” How it got there is a mystery, but ISO had to violate its own rules of procedures in order shoved it in there, implying intent on their part. Let’s review.
The requirement for “work environment” had never been particularly controversial until ISO 9001:2015. Under the prior 2008 version, the clause was called 6.4 “Work Environment” and read as follows:
The organization shall determine and manage the work environment needed to achieve conformity to product requirements.
NOTE: The term “work environment” relates to those conditions under which work is performed including physical, environmental and other factors (such as noise, temperature, humidity, lighting or weather).
It was always understood that this was addressing the need to control the work environment so that product quality was not affected. That interpretation is consistent with every prior version of ISO 9001, dating back to 1987, as well as the precursor documents that created ISO 9001, such as AQAP Q1 and MIL-Q-9858. It was never about managing social aspects of the workplace. ISO has different standards for that, such as ISO 34001 for occupational health and safety, or ISO 26000 for social responsibility. ISO is always careful, too, not to trample too hard on the International Labor Organization (ILO) which has always been quick to slap ISO down when it drifts too deeply into its bailiwick.
For ISO 9001:2015, though, this changed entirely. The new language — now falling under clause 7.1.4 — reads as follows:
The organization shall determine, provide and maintain the environment necessary for the operation of its processes and to achieve conformity of products and services.
NOTE A suitable environment can be a combination of human and physical factors, such as:
- social (e.g. non-discriminatory, calm, non-confrontational);
- psychological (e.g. stress-reducing, burnout prevention, emotionally protective);
- physical (e.g. temperature, heat, humidity, light, airflow, hygiene, noise).
These factors can differ substantially depending on the products and services provided.
Suddenly, somehow, the entire thrust of the clause changed. No longer was this merely about maintaining a work environment that didn’t damage product through, say, water leaks, humidity, air contamination, etc. Now the clause was tackling social justice, trying to root out “discrimination” and ensure an “emotionally protective” workplace for employees.
To which the world breathed a simultaneous “WTF?”
This addition is a legal nightmare, the nuclear time bomb sitting and ticking in wait, ready to destroy some unwitting company at its leisure. Dramatic? Let’s unpack it and see.
When Notes Aren’t Notes
First, understand that — allegedly — “Notes” are not auditable under ISO 9001. The rule is that third-party auditors cannot writing findings under Notes because they exist to clarify language in the text, where the actual requirements appear.
But for ISO 9001:2015, its rushed development meant that no editor ever stepped in to enforce that rule, and in a number of places, the Notes do contain requirements. For example, the new clause 7.1.3 Infrastructure explains that infrastructure can include buildings, equipment and utilities, whereas prior versions of the standard explicitly required that they do. Under the new standard, ISO makes this optional, as if you can reasonably argue that buildings, equipment and utilities are not “infrastructure.” Since it’s impossible to argue that these things are not infrastructure, the Note becomes a de facto hard requirement. This is why auditors always check the condition of your building, equipment maintenance records, etc. They are auditing to the Note, not the requirement.
Clause 8.5.4 “Preservation” suffers this same problem, with the requirements shoved into the Notes.
For the problematic “emotionally protective” workplace clause 7.1.4, some have argued that because the language resides in bullets (a) and (b) of the Note, they are just suggestions. Maybe.
But now look at bullet (c), which is clearly not a suggestion, but an actual requirement, defining that the work environment can include “physical (e.g. temperature, heat, humidity, light, airflow, hygiene, noise)” aspects. These are things your auditor regularly audits, so they are not suggestions, they are hard requirements.
So you have two bullets that seem like suggestions, and one that clearly is not. That means if you want to throw out (a) and (b), you have to throw out (c) at the same time. If you do that, it means you have nothing left of clause 7.1.4 at all, because “infrastructure” no longer means anything.
But let’s say that you do wish to get selective, and ignore (a) and (b) and keep their requirements wholly unmentioned in your QMS. Now think of the legal ramifications:
- Possibility 1: you ignore the clauses, and your employees accuse you of intentionally violating ISO 9001 in order to engage in discrimination or harassment. You get sued.
- Possibility 2: you ignore the clauses, and actual discrimination or harassment occurs. You get sued. During that suit, the plaintiff’s attorneys pull out ISO 9001 to bolster their case.
- Possibility 3: either of the above possibilities occur, and not only do you get sued, but so does your registrar.
You may think you have have a perfectly valid legal defense, but keep in mind, in order to get to the day when you mount your legal defense, you have to first hire attorneys and undergo the lawsuit through to the trial. Only then do you get to say your piece… after you’ve burned through $100-200K on legal expenses.
Now let’s say you don’t ignore the clauses. It really won’t matter how you try to implement controls to ensure no discrimination or a harassment-free workplace, because these things are both subjective and conditioned on events in the moment. An employee can still sue you if they perceive to have been harassed or discriminated against, and you’re back in court pleading your case. And you can be sure they will be carrying a copy of ISO 9001 into court with them.
What makes all this worse is that nothing in ISO 9001 is supposed to be about ensuring any sort of workplace environment. The US Navy is a huge proponent of ISO 9001, as well as the Marine Corps. These folks are literally getting shot at and bombed as part of their jobs, but they are supposed to maintain an “emotionally protective” workplace? So in order to comply with ISO 9001, we have to declare peace with the world, and pull all our troops out of… everywhere?
How It Got Inserted
How this language got inserted into ISO 9001 is a bit of a mystery, and it involves — of course — some underhanded manipulations by an unknown party who violated the ISO rules, with (apparently) ISO’s blessing.
First you have to understand that ISO has a fairly rigid procedure on how its standards are drafted. They go though set draft stages before publication: Working Draft (WD), Committee Draft (CD), Draft International Standard (DIS), Final Draft International Standard (FDIS) and finally International Standard (IS) which is the final, published version.
ISO has rules for these various stages, too. Typically WDs are rough drafts, CDs are more polished drafts widely circulated for public comment, and the DIS starts to look like the final product. According to ISO, a standard should be “90% technically accurate” at the DIS stage. The DIS is submitted for comments, and if there are no “technical” comments — meaning only editorial comments — then ISO can just publish the thing, and skip the FDIS stage altogether.
That didn’t happen for ISO 9001:2015, though, so ISO prepared an FDIS version, which allows for official voting on what will be come the final, published version Typically, no new requirements are added to the DIS for the FDIS, and the document is largely altered only for grammar and punctuation. ISO’s procedures, however, allow for the addition of technical comments to the DIS only if they are issued by an official TC 176 Member Nation, and only if they are approved by the TC 176 Secretariat.
The language regarding “social and psychological” factors of the work environment first appeared in the Committee Draft version. The prior Working Draft only included the following text:
NOTE 1 The term “work environment” relates to those conditions under which work is performed including physical, environmental and other factors (such as noise, temperature, humidity, lighting or weather).
By the time this became the first Committee Draft (CD1), the language was altered to read as follows:
NOTE Process environment can include physical, social, psychological and environmental factors (such as temperature, recognition schemes, ergonomics and atmospheric composition).
But that was it. So we see that TC 176 was already moving towards “social and psychological” factors, but this was still largely limited to — if one makes a broad assumption — the quality profession’s understanding of “Human Factors” and how they can affect quality.
The standard then underwent another Committee Draft (CD2) and then the DIS edits. By the time the DIS arrived, the language read as follows:
NOTE: Environment for the operation of processes can include physical, social, psychological, environmental and other factors (such as temperature humidity, ergonomics and cleanliness.)
So it remained largely the same as prior drafts, still touching on Human Factors, but not going full-blown social justice warrior yet.
ISO’s rules say that the DIS should be close to finished at that point. Again, they like to target that either the DIS is finished, and can be published without a FDIS step, or “90% technically accurate” before proceeding into FDIS.
But there’s more: the ISO rules also require that any changes to the DIS must be formally submitted as “technical comments” by the ISO member nations, and then vetted and approved by the TC 176 Secretariat, before they can be incorporated into the FDIS. This is to prevent many changes from happening at the DIS -> FDIS stage. It’s so late in the game, ISO doesn’t want major changes occurring at that point.
An analysis of the official comments on the DIS draft, for all of the TC 176 Member Nations, shows that no one proposed the final language which appears in ISO 9001:2015 at all. Two suggestions — one from the Netherlands and one from India — were both rejected by the Secretariat, meaning they could not be incorporated into the FDIS. But no one anywhere in the world officially suggested adding the language that finally appeared, specifically the parenthetical details on “social” and “psychological” factors:
– social (e.g. non-discriminatory, calm, non-confrontational);
– psychological (e.g. stress-reducing, burnout prevention, emotionally protective);
What this means, therefore, is that someone with high-up connections to Charles Corrie, the BSI rep who was acting as TC 176 Secretariat and single-handedly empowered to approve or reject the world’s suggested edits to ISO 9001, injected this text at the last minute. They did so in gross violation of ISO’s own standards development rules, and at a time when the language could not be removed even upon objections of the members. Remember, at the FDIS stage, only final up-or-down voting occurs; the text cannot be changed.
It’s likely the author of the “emotionally protective workplace” text knew exactly what he or she was doing, and knew the text would never survive scrutiny if it hadn’t been injected at the FDIS stage, when it was too late.
Now, when I saw this text appear in the FDIS I immediately wrote to Corrie and TC 176 and demanded it be removed, and a new FDIS issued. Corrie ignored the request entirely, and TC 176 responded by saying it was too late, that the FDIS voting process had already begun. Now, there’s nothing stopping ISO from stalling the vote and re-issuing an “FDIS 2” that fixes an error of this magnitude — one that can get the users of ISO 9001 sued! — but ISO wanted desperately to get the standard on sale in September 2015 to start raking in dough. They made that decision based on raw dollars, nothing more.
So, who wrote the text? We still don’t know, but some behind-the-scenes signs point to either an individual from the Netherlands (either Dick Hortensius — the key author behind Annex L who has shown utter contempt for ISO’s rules anyway — or Annemarie de Jong), or Sweden (I’m thinking Stefan Tangen?). Either way, BSI’s Charles Corrie is complicit no matter how you slice it, as he allowed this to happen.
How to Manage It
If you’re stuck with this language, how do you survive it? There’s a simple workaround that will help take the two problematic bullet points (a) and (b) out of your QMS entirely, and will minimize your legal exposure. Note that I said “minimize” and not eliminate; people can still sue for whatever they want.
Instead, I propose putting language in your Quality Manual that “vaccinates” you from the infection of these two bullets. In the section on work environment, add the following disclaimer:
[Your company name] manages the social and psychological aspects of the company in compliance with all applicable laws, and does not utilize the Quality Management System to do so. Physical aspects of the work environment are, however, managed by the Quality Management System.
It won’t fully protect you from getting sued by your employees, but it’s a start, and it stops auditors from poking around asking how you’re keeping your employees calm. After all, you don’t want to admit your secretly spraying Xanax in the air conditioning system, right?
About Christopher Paris
Christopher Paris is the founder and VP Operations of Oxebridge. He has over 30 years' experience implementing ISO 9001 and AS9100 systems, and is a vocal advocate for the development and use of standards from the point of view of actual users. He is the author of Surviving ISO 9001:2015. He reviews wines for the irreverent wine blog, Winepisser.