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Are you ready to talk about risks?

June 1, 2000
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In the past, most workplaces conducted their business with limited scrutiny from public stakeholders. An OSHA inspection or a report to the EPA remained mostly a private matter. But the world is changing. “Out of sight, out of mind” is old school. As Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems, said last year, “You have zero privacy anyway, get over it!”

The Internet, voluntary programs, and new laws are opening the curtain on environmental health and safety hazards. Chances are someone — a stranger — is going to reach you as the EHS pro and representative of your company and pose some tough and serious questions. The days of “no comment” and “I will have a spokesperson get back to you” won’t work anymore.

You may have to quickly convince a teenager, mother, cancer patient, or medical doctor that living near your workplace is safe. If you’re not credible right away, chances are your company may have to deal with a larger group of people, politicians, the media, or activists.

It’s an uncomfortable feeling talking about EHS risk with an angry or distraught stranger. But let’s look at how the Internet, voluntary programs, and laws are going to make this more likely to happen. I think you’ll see the need to be prepared and start learning how to become a more effective risk communicator.

Open access

Within the past five years, agencies such as OSHA and the EPA have put a lot of facility-specific hazard information (inspection history, emission reports) on the Internet. In December 1999, for example, the EPA released the publication, “Chemicals in Your Community,” directing readers to various Internet sites to conduct EHS hazard and risk evaluations. Readers were encouraged to directly contact facility managers if they needed more information on chemical hazards and risks.

Much of this agency data has been acquired by special interest groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) who present it in different, sometimes alarming, formats on their own web pages. Search engines on the Internet now easily permit a person to find EHS hazard information for a specific business location.

And there are more people conducting searches. The rapid growth of the Internet has simply created more EHS stakeholders. Today, more than 46.5 million U.S. households have Internet access— and the number is expected to double to more than 90 million by 2004.

The demographics of Internet users also facilitate more EHS stakeholders. Women now make up more than half of the Net’s population, and women are more concerned about environmental and health issues than men. A sexist remark? No, this is simply a finding of several modern research studies. The most often visited web sites by women are health-related.

Other stakeholders who are using the Internet to find EHS hazard and risk information include employees, retirees, the elder population, people with an illness or disease, lawyers, consultants, academic researchers, and investors. Teenagers routinely use the Internet to do homework and conduct EHS research.

Voluntary programs

One of the first voluntary programs that encouraged some facilities to provide EHS risk communication to stakeholders was the Chemical Manufacturers Association pledge for “Responsible Care.” The CMA, however, generally represented just one industry sector.

Having a broader impact is the ISO 14001 “Environmental Management Systems” voluntary standard, a registration program covering all industry sectors. It contains a clause for environmental communications to stakeholders. Organizations are required to establish and maintain procedures for internal communication and “receiving, documenting and responding to relevant communication from external interested parties.” Although ISO 14001 does not require the release of EHS information that is not publicly available, the mere fact that it requires a communication procedure will broadly increase EHS risk communication practices. And ISO 14001’s popularity grew throughout the 1990s.

Regulations

EHS risk communication is finding its way into law. For example, some employers were required by the EPA to hold public meetings no later than the beginning of this year to discuss the off-site consequences of facility emergencies described in their Risk Management Plan. The requirement to discuss an RMP was one of the first opportunities for many EHS pros to formally discuss risk from chemical releases. If you attended any of these RMP meetings, you’ll understand when I characterize this effort mostly as a very disjointed and bumbling attempt at formal risk communication.

Until recently, formal EHS risk communication has been confined to a few regulators, academics, and some scientifically-trained people in consulting or industry. Most EHS pros have never practiced formal EHS risk communication. If they communicated risk at all, it was at best very crude or a shoot-from-the-hip approach.

Put environmental health and safety risk communication on your radar screen. “Us common folks” haven’t had much practice in communicating EHS risks, but within the next couple of years it may be one of your more frequent and important activities.

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