sustainabilitySustainability is a very visible topic of educational sessions at ASSE’s Safety 2013. It’s another aspect, as with risk management, of the safety profession broadening its horizons.

Wednesday afternoon another of those town hall “open mic” roundtables takes on the subject: “Sustainability 101: What Does This Mean & What’s the Value?”

The Center for Safety and Health Sustainability, launched at an ASSE annual professional development conference two years ago, has been active in a global effort to expand the definition and criteria for sustainability to include occupational safety and health metrics.

It’s a worthwhile pursuit. In 2012, 38 percent of safety and health pros surveyed by ISHN for its annual State of the EHS Nation White Paper Report indicated their involvement in environmental sustainability activities for their company would increase. That comes on the heels of 38 percent saying sustainability work would increase in 2011.This is obvious fertile soil for safety’s growth.

One of the Center’s goals is to influence organizations to adopt best practices with regard to safety and health sustainability, which is defined as an organization’s “responsibility to ensure that the protection of human life and the safety, health and well-being of workers, customers and neighboring communities are a primary consideration in any business endeavor.”

Sustainability stretches beyond borders

Thomas Cecich, CSP, CIH, ASSE vice president for professional affairs and chair of the Center board said, “Any organization wishing to proclaim itself as ‘sustainable’ must have a safety management system in place to protect its workers, and in a similar manner any ‘sustainable’ organization using suppliers from underdeveloped and developing nations must also require those suppliers to protect the safety and health of their employees.”

Cecich explains that supply chain workers in developing nations tend to be particularly vulnerable because they face a number of workplace challenges less commonly seen in the developed world. The world has certainly witnessed evidence of that “vulnerability” in recent workplace catastrophes in developing nations.

“Management systems for safety may be weak or nonexistent and workers tend to lack training and supervision. They often lack basic knowledge and tools required to be proactive about their own safety. Even the most basic safety and health measures and investments are frequently bypassed. Published reports of the recent tragic fires in Pakistan and Bangladesh say fundamental fire safety precautions, such as accessible exits, were lacking,” Cecich said.

Frameworks for corporations

“It’s not enough to condemn local factory owners for these conditions and to expect long-term change,” Cecich noted. “The corporations that source supply chain products, as well as their stakeholders, have tremendous power to influence the conditions in which supply chain workers operate. The sustainability movement, long oriented predominantly toward influencing corporate decisions with regard to the environment, has developed frameworks by which corporations can compile and report on performance criteria.

“We have suggested key indicators to be included in sustainability reporting such as promoting the use of occupational safety and health management systems, extending coverage to temporary or fixed duration contract workers, and increasing focus on workers for suppliers in the developing world,” Cecich said. “Addressing these issues will pave the way for more meaningful reporting and needed changes when it comes to protecting human life and the safety, health and well-being of workers, customers, and neighboring communities.”

A business perspective

In a joint presentation earlier at Safety 2013, former ASSE President Darryl C. Hill and incoming President Kathy Seabrook addressed sustainability and safety from a business perspective.

“Some safety professionals believe that sustainability is a fleeting trend, as was total quality management several years ago. This is likely an inaccurate assessment of sustainability’s broader, long-term impact,” they wrote in an article for ASSE’s Professional Safety magazine.

The authors continued: “Safety and health are related to sustainability as each function focuses on similar objectives:

1) Eliminate incidents, waste and overall losses.
2) Improve operational excellence.
3) Conduct business in a sustainable way that protects human and natural resources, and reduces the business’s environmental footprint.

“Safety and health is viewed increasingly as a value-add in many companies. The function is moving beyond compliance and being viewed as a strategic business imperative. Sustainability allows safety and health to demonstrate the value proposition by not only achieving the noted objectives but also creating shareholder value. The Global Environmental Management Initiative (GEMI, 2004) developed an excellent model that conveys the safety and health value proposition.

GEMI identifies three pathways by which SH&E excellence contributes to shareholder value:
a) direct and tangible;
b) indirect and intangible; and
c)indirect and intangible.”