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All eyes on sustainability

October 27, 2011
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wind powerLast week in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, AZ under cloudless cobalt blue skies and 90-degree temperatures approximately 500 senior level environmental health and safety professionals met for two days at the 19th Annual NAEM EHS Management Forum.

Two decades ago, NAEM began in Washington, DC as the National Association for Environmental Management. It has since broadened its focus to include in a major way occupational safety and health and now officially goes by the acronym NAEM. It considers itself the largest professional community for EHS and sustainability decision-makers.

The 2011 Tucson meeting was divided into four tracks — Foundational EHS Excellence, Defining and Delivering Sustainability, Supply Chain Strategies, and 21st Century Leadership. Each track featured six workshops with multiple presenters; many were practicing EHS senior leaders in industry.

We devoted most of our time to covering the sustainability workshops and two keynote presentations on sustainability. Clearly, more and more EHS professionals are taking on sustainability responsibilities in their organizations. In ISHN’s 2011 White Paper Reader Survey, conducted this past September, 39% said their involvement in company sustainability initiatives will increase in 2012. A scant four percent sustainability responsibilities will shrink.

Here are takeaways from NAEM conference speakers regarding corporate sustainability:

● Some very green companies have lousy safety and health programs.

● Sustainability corporate officers should come from the operations ranks. Operations is where sustainability rubber meets the road.

● It is a stretch for EHS officers to head sustainability departments, though some certainly do. But juggling the workload of technical EHS issues with ever-expanding sustainability initiatives will stretch some EHS pros to the point of diminishing returns.

● There are exceptions to the rule, but in general it’s a bad idea to have sustainability led by corporate marketing and communications people. It reinforces the negative image of sustainability as spin more than substance.

● As with many safety and health departments, many sustainability departments and officers have a hard time integrating their activities with the organizational mainstream. Sustainability becomes another alienated silo.

● Sustainability has three legs to stand on: economic, social, and environmental. The so-called triple bottom line. Safety and health comes under the social category. But its “footprint” is often very small.

● Corporations, when they consider sustainability, think of water, electricity, waste, emissions, life cycle management, product stewardship, even facility lighting. Safety and health is an after-thought most often.

● Most corporate sustainability reports, if they reference safety and health at all, limit the contribution to employee injury and illness rates. Of course they will boast of declines in these rates. But any other indicators of safety and health performance are largely absent.

● EHS management systems are one bridge EHS professionals have to sustainability activity. Corporations want consistency in EHS systems at all facilities as part of being a sustainable enterprise.

● Chemical inventorying and MSDS databases are another area where EHS pros contribute to corporate sustainability. A company can’t know what toxic chemicals to replace and / or diminish the use of without a complete audit of chemicals on site. Material Safety Data Sheets are the go-to resource to identify chemicals that can become targets for reductions or elimination.

● Sustainability ratings, which companies are the greenest, should all be taken with a grain of salt. There is no consensus on how these rankings should be calculated. So the sustainability ratings business becomes a cottage industry of its own. Companies use them to validate their sustainability credibility.

● A large percentage of the work done by sustainability officers has to do with answering questions and filling out forms for rankings and ratings. A company does not want to be conspicuous by its absence from nationally publicized sustainability performance rankings.

● CEOs “get” sustainability in a way they do not with occupational safety and health. It is easier to engage a CEO in a conversation about sustainability than safety. The self-interest in sustainability is readily apparent. CEOs quickly see how their company’s sustainability initiatives impact brand value, investor perceptions, customer perceptions, media perceptions, consumer relationships, corporate reputations, corporate citizenship, and notions of responsible corporate behavior.

● Still, many sustainability departments are under-funded and under-staffed, suffering from the same hunger for resources that many occupational safety and health departments must contend with.

● As with safety, sustainability suffers from being seen as a necessary evil by too many CEOs.

● These are the current sustainability priorities: climate change, water scarcity, food security, energy use and poverty.

● The future of sustainability rests in broadening its scope beyond the environment. The pendulum is swinging from environmental leading indicators to social metrics.

● Social sustainability metrics include: malnutrition, infectious diseases, human trafficking, primary and secondary education, human rights, diversity, job creation, local procurement, and social norms.

● Safety and health sustainability metrics will move into these areas: employee health promotion, nutrition, exercise, percentage of healthy employees, percentage of employees participating and / or engaged in lifestyle and wellness programs, behavioral observations, near miss reporting, risk reduction participation, percentage of employees engaged in safety and health activities, percentage of employees exposed to toxic chemical levels below permissible limits, and the performance of integrated EHS management systems with risk assessment systems.

● Sustainability, as with safety and health, is prone to focus too much on outcome measures and not enough on process measures.

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