The term “sustainability” takes on different form and meaning, depending upon who’s involved in the discussion. For some businesses the term is often identified with “being green”, while others take a much more value-added systems based perspective (including responsible environmental and social practices and financial governance grounded in key social and environmental values).
In traditional terms, using the 1987 Bruntland Commission definition, sustainability means “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (UN, 1987). More companies, large and small and in between, are striving for balance among economic progress, social responsibility, and environmental protection. This has been proven by the extraordinary growth in corporate initiatives focused on improving the corporate “triple-bottom-line”, which can markedly improve an organization’s competitive advantage.
More recently, there has been a missing piece in the sustainability “lexicon”, namely safety, that is getting attention and gaining its rightful place in how organizations perceive and practice sustainability.
Meeting of like minds
The Center for Safety & Health (CSHS) was launched in 2010 by the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA), and Institution of Occupational Health & Safety to provide a framework for sustainability as it specifically related to health and safety. The CSHS felt that there were opportunities to standardize the body of knowledge and perform additional research to leverage health and safety community expertise and align with the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI).
Together, the CSHS and GRI launched mutual efforts in 201, designed to review occupational, health, and safety indicators in future GRI iterations. As a result, the latest G4 guidelines provide additional focus on two key areas, those being supply chain accountability, and working conditions and safety. Further, the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) defines sustainability: “This includes the responsibility to ensure that the protection of human life and the safety, health and well-being of workers, customers, and neighboring communities are primary considerations in any business endeavor.”
As sustainability has become common practice in the corporate world and along product value chains, it has evolved to reflect a balance of responsible environmental practices, responsible social practices, and a safe workplace for employees. Darryl C. Hill, Ph.D., CSP, executive director of global corporate safety and health for Johnson Controls, and Kathy A. Seabrook, CSP, CMIOSH (UK), EurOSHM, of Global Solutions Inc., told a session at Safety 2013 that sustainability is not a “trend”. It’s becoming a business practice driven by the investment community.
As they also noted “Executives are increasingly recognizing that long-term economic growth is not possible unless that growth is socially and environmentally sustainable. Striving for balance among economic progress, social responsibility and environmental protection, usually referred to as the ‘triple bottom line’ approach, can contribute to improving an organization’s competitive advantage.”
However, research published by the CSHS in February 2015 compared GRI indicators with current OSHA reporting topics. The data suggests that despite the connectivity to the GRI indicators, there still remains much to do in terms of how organizations reporthealth and safety performance. As the data suggests, most organizations tend to report lagging indicators (like injury and illness numbers) as opposed to the types of leading indicators (training hour counts per employee, % of work locations that have implemented an occupational safety health management system that meets recognized standards), each designed to assure that organizations improve overall safety performance and organizational sustainability.
Safety’s front seat role in sustainability
According to Ms. Seabrook in the 2013 EHS Today article,” EHS and sustainability have similar objectives, such as:
- Eliminating incidents, waste and overall losses
- Improving operational excellence
- Conducting business in a way that protects “people, planet, profit and principles.”
Many organizations with which my BSI colleagues and I work insightfully perceive safety as a cultural organizational value, central to sustaining the workplace. Companies are integrating safety into project planning, equipment and product design, work practices, and organizational change management. Leading companies are taking that a step further, by integrating safety into lean-based operational practices, and improving ergonomics, reducing waste while reducing job hazards and risks, and improving operational efficiencies.
Organizations, especially those that are small to medium sized, are progressively moving toward removing safety, environmental, and human resources from silos and integrating each with the other. This evolution is demonstrating how organizations that embed safety and environmental thinking into sustainability initiatives (rather than bolting safety on) are reaping the benefits of a safer workplace, reduced accident rates, and improved safety awareness.
When businesses invest in promoting the mantra of “all injuries are preventable,” they are sending a clear message to all employees that there are standards expected of anyone working inside those walls. Everyone bears responsibility, and embedding safety and sustainability within the highest of organizational values offers a clear pathway to operational excellence.
By David Meyer, a Senior Consultant in the Hillsboro, OR, office of BSI EHS Services and Solutions.