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Safety Leadership

Safety Leadership: Three ways health and safety can lead sustainability

December 1, 2013

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Editor’s Note: Achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace demands strong leadership. Throughout 2013, experts from Ojai, CA-based consulting firm BST will share their point of view on what leaders need to know to guide their organizations to world-class safety performance.

From recycling and renewable energy to community investment and ethical sourcing, sustainability efforts have become a significant part of many company strategies. For safety* leaders, this emphasis has been a mixed blessing. On one hand, sustainability is consistent with safety’s mission of protecting people, product and profit. On the other, the safety message is sometimes subsumed by a sustainability agenda prone to poor definition and lack of focus, in some cases diverting attention and resources at the board level.

Like many new disciplines, sustainability has its share of growing pains. Chief among them is confusion about what sustainability actually means (many leaders comment that they’ve heard as many definitions of sustainability as they have encountered sustainability experts). Without a clear understanding of meaning, it is difficult for an organization to integrate sustainability into business strategy. But rather than a threat to safety, health and the environment, sustainability offers leaders an opportunity to use their expertise to advance the way an organization operates. We see at least three ways that safety leaders can contribute to sustainability right now:

Safety is at the core of sustainability. Sustainability really comes down to three principles:

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“Doing no harm” starts with the people closest to the business; no organization can credibly claim sustainability while continuing to have life-altering injuries and fatalities or environmental incidents. “Leaving no footprint” helps leaders address product life cycle issues and the means by which products are made and delivered. “Doing some good” represents the fundamental value an organization adds, which may go beyond basic products and services. Safety leaders can support these principles through sharing their experience in effecting organizational change for good.

Like safety, sustainability is not about a function or department doing sustainability (or safety). It’s about running the business in a way that’s consistent with guiding principles. Total Quality Management and process safety are great examples of this. They each evolved away from standalone functions (often through integrated management systems). Sustainability also must find its way into the organization’s day-to-day activities. Safety leaders can offer invaluable expertise in how to embed and sustain principles into engineering, systems, processes and culture.

For sustainability to be anything more than a marketing spin, its principal activities must be framed with a view to an organization’s end-to-end effects. Safety leaders have considerable expertise in this area. Over the past 40 years, environmental, health and safety leaders have developed models that have broadened our understanding of everything from injury causation to culture – in turn transforming solutions, activities and results. As with safety, an effective sustainability framework helps the organization see past immediate effects to those that will be felt long after a product has left the building.

  1. Building a foundation
    1. Do no harm to people or the planet in our activities or our organization.
    2. Leave no footprint.
    3. Do some good along the way.
  2. Turning principle into practice
  3. Creating an end-to-end framework

What’s next

As safety leaders, we can help our colleagues achieve sustainable performance. There is one caution: We must never lose sight of our obligation to continue perfecting EHS disciplines. With 4,200 workplace fatalities a year in the United States alone, continued environmental spills and releases, and many exposures persisting inside and outside the workplace, becoming a stable bedrock for sustainability demands that we maintain our focus on “doing no harm” where we are.

*Safety is interpreted as encompassing all aspects of environmental, health and safety care for an organization, as well as impacts on the workforce and the community at large.

Colin Duncan is CEO of global safety consulting firm BST (bstsolutions.com), a charter member of the Campbell Institute.
Michael F. Henderek was the safety programs manager for Exxon Mobil Corp. prior to his retirement after 41 years of service. Today, Henderek is a National Safety Council board member and a founding member of the Campbell Institute.

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