In search of benchmarks

June 1, 2006
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What is the appropriate ratio of EHS professionals to an employee workforce?

What EHS services are most typically outsourced?

What metrics define superior EHS performance for a business?

These questions beg consensus answers. And the lack of defining benchmarks makes life in the EHS world unpredictable for professionals. An EHS manager in the automotive industry saw his resources go from “highly effective” to “woefully inadequate” in 12 months when a new management team swept in. With 26 years experience, this vet knows how to negotiate with executives. Still he’s vulnerable to volatile swings in support because he has no accepted benchmarks to hand new managers to guide their decisions.

“One of their first decisions was to reduce my department to a ‘department of one’,” said this manager. A federal incident investigator said safety and health department staffing levels and internal expertise are factors evaluated during investigations, but “the problem we face is that without a consensus on what is considered to be adequate, it is difficult to make recommendations.”

Surveys say…

Private services have stepped in to try to provide benchmarks to the EHS field. Here are four we are familiar with. Keep in mind each represents a different model for benchmarking EHS practices, with different sets of questions, response categories and participant populations.

*Early this year the Wisconsin-based training company J.J. Keller added a benchmarking survey to its Keller Online EHS subscription service. When we checked it on April 27th, 1,051 subscribers had completed the survey.

Most of these professionals work in smaller operations. Only 14 percent come from organizations with more than 1,000 employees. Fifty-nine percent work in firms with 250 or fewer employees. Fifty-nine percent report data on just one facility location.

Among the results we gleaned:
  • Formal job safety analyses are conducted by most safety pros (57 percent).
  • Video training dominates over online offerings (79 percent vs. 22 percent).
  • Few safety departments distribute to employees specific safety newsletters (14 percent use safety newsletters vs. 21 percent that include safety info in general newsletters vs. 64 percent who do not use a newsletter to disseminate safety info).


An $800 annual subscription (for one user license; other pricing structures exist for multiple licenses) allows you to take the online survey and compare your EHS activities to companies of similar size or in similar industries; a subscription gives you access to other KOL safety program tools and updates, too.

*In 2004, BNA, Inc., a Washington D.C.-based newsletter organization, teamed with the National Association for Environmental Management to produce an 80-page report (priced at $626) that surveyed an unspecified number of companies on EHS expenditures, budgets, staffing, job responsibilities and program priorities.

From the free executive summary we learned:
  • Per capita EHS outlays range from $13 per employee to $14,423 per employee, with a median per capita outlay of $268 per employee.
  • The median ratio of EHS department staff members per 100 employees is 0.3 per 100, or about one EHS staffer for every 300 employees.


*ORC Worldwide, an international management and human resources consulting firm, regularly conducts in-depth benchmarking among the more than 150 corporations that pay an annual membership fee for ORC’s Washington-based EHS consulting services.

These corporate elites — from Alcoa and BP America to Verizon Communications and W.W. Grainger — annually exchange and compare data on program elements such as leadership commitment and support, employee involvement, risk reduction, OSHA recordables, and perception surveys, according to ORC’s Jim Nash.

ORC also conducts single-topic benchmark surveys. For example, ORC’s member survey on EHS hiring practices conducted in 2005 found almost all respondents require an academic degree for safety and health positions, but not a specific GPA or specific course work. Almost all give weight to or require accredited certifications such as the CSP and CIH.

In November 2005, ORC surveyed members on pandemic influenza preparedness. Of 39 survey respondents, only 12 companies indicated that they have or are in the process of purchasing Tamiflu for their employees. (Tamiflu, a prescription drug marketed by Roche Laboratories, is used for patients one year or older to treat flu symptoms that have started within the past day or two, and to reduce chances of getting the flu in people aged one year and older.) Recent controls on the sales and shipment of Tamiflu to prevent hoarding might have affected responses, according to ORC. Thirty-eight of the responding companies have either developed or are in the process of developing a preparedness plan. Twenty-nine companies maintain systems for monitoring employees who travel.

*A Washington neighbor of ORC — the Global Environmental Management Initiative (GEMI) — states its mission as “business helping business.” That includes benchmarking and sharing best practices. After one year, benchmarking presentations are transferred to GEMI’s public web site.

GEMI’s 41 current members (paying annual dues of $20,000 after first-year dues of $10,000) are brand name giants, with combined annual sales of some $915 billion. Deep pockets allow many of these corporations — 3M, DuPont, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer among them — to join both ORC and GEMI and double their benchmarking opportunities. GEMI surveys tend to be more environmentally focused. Recent surveys cover sustainability metrics, practices and reporting.

A 2003 GEMI survey of EHS performance measures determined most firms rely on lagging indicators (such as OSHA recordables) for EHS metrics. GEMI found these results “somewhat surprising, especially considering the years of work on metrics,” according to a presentation that can be downloaded from the GEMI web site.

VPP best practices

The Voluntary Protection Programs Participants’ Association’s (VPPPA) 1,400+ member companies and work sites are all involved in OSHA and Department of Energy VPP programs — creating a grassroots network of EHS programs. But VPPPA does not engage in systematic benchmarking similar to ORC, GEMI or KOL. What it does offer is an annual directory of best practices. The directory gives contact names and phone numbers for approved VPP sites with particularly strong safety and health program elements (such as behavioral observation processes) identified by OSHA during VPP onsite reviews.

The price of the directory is $25 for VPPPA nonmembers; $15 for members.

Do it yourself

As you see from these types of services, it’s actually not a case of “missing EHS benchmarks.” It’s more a matter of what price do you want to pay for benchmarks?

Or you can simply decide to come up with your own definitions.

Consultant Richard MacLean documented the scattershot use of benchmarks in an email survey to 1,030 EHS pros in 2002. He asked: What is your definition of superior EHS performance? Sixty-one pros responded — with 58 different definitions — as he reported in the Winter 2003 issue of Environmental Quality Management. Most were lofty descriptions of corporate values and behaviors. Only two provided measurable thresholds, according to MacLean.

The dearth of hard EHS measures such as staff ratios and per capita expenditures (which demand more accountability of organizations to explain their decisions) creates inconsistencies even within the same company, as described by another EHS pro:

Last year he moved from one plant to another within the same corporation (a member of both ORC and GEMI). His old location had two EHS pros (with graduate degrees and CSPs) for 200 employees. At his new plant, he said, “I am one safety guy for 300 workers.” He enjoys “great support” from management and supervisors. But “the only reason I’m keeping my head above water” is by working 10-12 hour days, with lunch on the run, and weekend visits back home. His family didn’t make the move with him.

SIDEBARS: Why no benchmarks?

Why does the EHS field suffer from a lack of discussion and research regarding how organizations support safety and health departments?
  1. The whole issue of EHS resources basically remains in the closet. Many safety and health pros will not risk their jobs by going public with grievances over inadequate resources. They might quit for other work, complain generically about a lack of respect, or eventually be silenced by having their positions eliminated.
  2. An ever-expanding army of safety consultants is not about to risk contracts with industry by making presentations at safety conferences on industry’s often flagging support for safety departments.
  3. Pros with grievances about resource restraints have no protection. No union spokesman issuing press releases, like the California Association of Professional Scientists (representing Cal/OSHA inspectors), or the Professional Airways Systems Specialists representing FAA inspectors, whose president last year said “cutting corners to save pennies cannot come at the expense of safety.”
  4. Public apathy blunts the call for investigations into EHS resource levels. When was the last time a newspaper series or research study or congressional hearing looked into industry safety and health department resources? The mainstream media’s only interest is dramatic egregious cases, such as The New York Times’ investigation of McWane Industries several years ago — not the bigger picture of staffing, funding and adequate resources for company safety departments across the land.
  5. Congress only holds hearings on job safety when forced by national tragedy. Then it’s agency bureaucrats who take most of the bullets, not executives from campaign-contributing industries. This type of theatre will play out again as Congress investigates mining safety.
  6. NIOSH researches industry safety practices about once a generation. The last one, “Safety Program Practices in Record-Holding Plants,” was published in March 1979, based on field studies conducted from 1975-1978.


    1. SIDEBARS: Benchmarks — It's all good

      There is no lack of publicity when it comes to reporting on good safety practices:
      • OSHA loves to boast about its Voluntary Protection Program “Stars” — and those enthusiastic work sites do indeed deserve recognition, make no mistake.
      • The National Safety Council is on a mission to single out and promote CEOs who “get it” in terms of supporting workplace safety and health. Again, these kinds of stories need to reach other execs.


      But the story about the number of safety and health departments stretched thin, lacking support, and unable to effectively function is not getting out. It’s not raised as an issue, debated at conferences, studied or measured. Ten years ago ISHN ran a cover story on the downsizing of safety departments and was chastised privately by a competitive magazine for not doing enough to make the market attractive to advertisers.

      Healthcare takes the lead

      Healthcare was likewise silent about risky safety practices and inadequate safety resources until a 1999 Institute of Medicine report made public what doctors had long known and quietly accepted: a lack of safety oversight, systems and values contributed to medical errors killing patients (between 44,000 - 98,000 annually).

      National patient safety goals — specifying safety practices such as communication techniques and addressing issues such as staff fatigue — are now set annually by one organization that audits healthcare systems for accreditation.

      But OSHA doesn’t set annual national safety goals, even voluntary ones, for industry. Especially goals that focus on process activities such as auditing, planning, risk reporting and abatement.

      A federal healthcare agency is piloting a perception survey to be used by hospitals to gauge elements of their safety culture, and track improvements. But there is no federal effort to develop tools to promote safety cultures in industry — surveys, best practices models.

      Healthcare is struggling to become more transparent, open and honest about medical errors and patient harm. General industry — decades ahead of healthcare in terms of safety auditing, communication and training — is behind when it comes to transparency. The best organizations get awards; the villains get penalties. But we know very little of how safety and health is supported and practiced in the majority of companies.

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