Many businesses and their compliance officers were ill-equipped to contend with increased federal environmental and safety oversight starting in the ’70s. Firms often viewed EHS as an afterthought, forcing managers to fight to convey their value to the business. Plus, the fledgling EHS field was a volatile one, with companies quickly increasing and reducing EHS staff based on the latest enforcement actions or lack thereof.

Modern regulatory agencies

Recent regulatory activity by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) serves as a reminder of the burden placed on EHS managers. Since 1994, the EPA has published more than 40,000 regulatory-related items. Comparably, the Department of Agriculture published approximately 25,000; the Department of Labor, 21,000; and the Department of Justice, 18,000.

EHS managers are pressed to deal with regulations published in greater frequency and depth, and must do so knowing enforcement efforts are more aggressive. In fiscal year 2012, the EPA levied $252 million in civil and criminal penalties against noncompliant businesses. In FY 2011, that total was $187 million, and in FY 2010, $148 million.

The same aggressiveness can be seen in the recent actions of OSHA. According to OSHA’s inspections data for FY 2010, there was a 6.2 percent increase in the number of inspections since FY 2006; there was also a 15.3 percent increase in the total number of violations and a 22.1 percent rise in serious violations. OSHA’s target to rein in serious violators has spawned the Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP), created in 2010.

Changing company culture

EHS professionals have a lot on their plate. They must stay aware of new regulations, understand and interpret requirements, apply those standards to operations and enforce them at the worksite. They also are often tasked with influencing company culture. The emphasis on corporate sustainability may come down from the C-suite, but EHS managers are on the frontlines of the battle, charged with recruiting believers among employees with reality-based results. They have become leaders of workplace safety with rallying cries such as “Our Goal… Zero Harm.”

Environmental strategies have also been pushed on EHS managers in an effort to “green up” their companies. In the NAEM’s 2012 EHS and Sustainability benchmarking report, setting environmental goals was the most cited common responsibility, ahead of compliance. This shift suggests EHS professionals are now tasked with not only managing environmental-related compliance issues, but proactively managing environmental strategies.

The same NAEM benchmarking report echoes that sentiment — EHS managers increasingly assume more responsibility for the future environmental and social performance of their employer. Respondents report taking the lead on everything from energy management to natural resource conservation efforts and even corporate sustainability marketing.

EHS managers are still underfunded

Given the crucial role EHS managers play in a business’ operations and protecting its reputation, they still face a barrage of external and internal forces that complicate their job. Plus, they are often shortchanged by budget constraints that leave them with insufficient resources, personnel and compliance tools.

In a 2013 report on the state of the EHS profession, GreenBiz reported business spending on sustainability had grown for three years, but EHS budgets had stagnated, with fewer organizations investing in providing for managers and staff.

The bottom line is sustainability has become vital to a business’ performance. More consumers say they prefer or will pay more for sustainable products; investors have made environmental and social responsibility a key criteria; and corporate reputation hinges on a firm’s ability to communicate its sustainability and social responsibility agenda.

Sustainability offers a seat at the table

By taking the lead on sustainability and other EHS issues, EHS managers have carved out a seat at the table for themselves to prove their value to the business, and to make the case for being better funded to handle the daily challenges they face to improve operational efficiency, business continuity and the EHS scorecard of leading and lagging performance indicators.

EHS managers are catalysts within organizations. They safeguard employees, conserve the environment and reduce risks associated with non-compliance. For businesses to see the value that comes with superior EHS management, senior leaders need to grasp the broad scope of expertise EHS professionals deliver to the entire company. To do so, organizations must equip managers with the tools they need to lead the charge toward a greener future. Advancing corporate sustainability is the ultimate goal, but without compliance and without the necessary resources EHS managers need to achieve it, businesses severely hinder themselves in that endeavor.

This article is an excerpt from therom the white paper EHS Managers: The Evolution from Necessary Evil to Vital Leaders. For a copy of the full white paper, contact Dakota Software at 216-765-7100 ext. 131.