Dan Markiewicz
This headline caught my eye not long ago: “Safety official suspended over rise in job injuries.”

Here’s the scoop: The individual overseeing the safety of city workers in Cleveland, Ohio, was suspended for “neglect of duty and incompetence,” according to the newspaper report, a day after the local news reported that $10 million could have been saved if Cleveland’s workers’ compensation costs were reduced to the three-year average levels for other Ohio cities. Cleveland’s personnel chief said that the safety official could be fired “if he does not improve.”

What about you? If injury and illness rates rise in your company, could you be held back from a promotion, raise or merit increase — or suspended or fired?

Most CEOs live with this challenge. They’re held accountable for the financial performance of their company regardless of economic, market, and many other conditions outside their direct control. And today there is a trend to push performance accountability down through the ranks. It might not be enough if you think you’re taking care of environmental health and safety business by conducting required training and audits and handing reports in on time. If EHS “numbers” don’t look good — workers’ comp costs or injury rates are higher than your industry’s average, for instance — you might have to face the music.

Paying the price

It’s easy to sympathize with the Cleveland safety official’s plight. Safety problems of the city’s magnitude are mostly organizational, not individual. Many other employees had to be skirting their safety responsibilities for a long time.

I know I can empathize with the Cleveland official. While working in the corporate world, my annual performance evaluation, which was tied to an annual merit increase, was affected by the injury and illness performance for the corporation as a whole, which encompassed more than 40 U.S. facilities.

I worked from a base in Ohio, and had no day-to-day control over any plant or person. Still, I was often criticized and my performance ratings suffered because a plant in Nebraska had the highest workers’ compensation costs in the company. It didn’t seem fair. Employees and managers in Nebraska were screwing up, not me, or so I thought. But I paid a price.

And I’m not alone. We don’t know for sure how many EHS pros are punished for poor organizational performance, but if we go by some common yardsticks many companies could be viewed as out of line with EHS norms. Look at it this way: injury and illness rates, comp costs, or pollution levels are often compared against an industry average, meaning any performance above the average could be considered “poor.” Using this definition, about one-half of all organizations could be poor performers.

And as you know, you can have good EHS statistics and still get whacked by inspectors, or shaken by a catastrophic event.

Other measures of EHS performance can land you in hot water, too. The Environmental Defense Scorecard Web site includes approximately 20,000 organizations that have at least one category of their environmental performance ranked as “dirtiest/worst performing facilities in U.S.” And last year OSHA published a list of about 13,000 employers with excessively high injury and illness rates.

Fight or flight

Whether these measures fairly evaluate an EHS pro’s job performance is not the point here. You’ve got to be alert to the fact that many companies now judge employees against organizational performance goals. So what are you going to do if your boss says, “EHS numbers in our company are out of line and I’m going to demote you in rank and pay until they improve?”

Should you fight to overcome the problems that led to your predicament, or take flight and look for another job? Ask yourself these questions:

Is there any promise of widespread organizational change that could foster improved EHS performance?

Are senior managers truly committed to change? Or will EHS problems always be delegated down the chain to a designated scapegoat?

In the Cleveland example, widespread and lasting EHS improvements would stand a better chance for success if the newspaper article’s headline read, “Mayor and his direct reports accept blame and responsibility over rise in job injuries.” True organizational change starts with accountability at the very top. If you don’t see it coming out of the corner office, other managers, supervisors, and employees down the line are not going to accept the changes needed to make lasting EHS progress. In this case, looking for another job may be a strong option.

Here’s another question for you: Has your authority and reputation been so badly damaged by some sort of performance punishment that people may not listen or work well with you?

Think of the Survivor series on television. Even co-workers who you believe are loyal friends might not want to associate with you if they feel you’re marked for being fired. And others who you perhaps offended at some point in the past might take advantage of your misfortune and undermine efforts to improve EHS in the organization. If you’re fighting the battle alone, and little change in support is expected, taking flight is an option.

When should you stay and fight?

Stick it out if your organization commits to change by placing accountability for various aspects of EHS performance throughout the entire management and employee ranks. This is best accomplished by adopting programs such as OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program and ISO’s 14000 “environmental management” series of voluntary standards.

I think it’s time to look at accountability in EHS the same way we judge coaches of college or professional sports team. If the team does not win enough games, regardless of the reasons why, it’s the coach who usually pays the price and looks for another job. It might not be fair, but that’s the reality of what we’re dealing with. Be prepared.

Sidebar: Should I stay or should I go?

OK, your company’s EHS performance has taken a hit, for whatever reasons, and you’re put on the spot. Should you try to fix the problems, or look for another job? Ask yourself these questions:

  • What are the odds of widespread organizational change that could foster improvements?

  • Are senior managers truly committed to change?

  • Or will EHS problems always be delegated down the chain to a designated scapegoat?

  • Has your authority and reputation been so badly damaged that people may not listen or work well with you?

  • Will you get the support you need, or will you fight the battle alone?