What the concept means for today’s safety professionals – and their employers
For such a commonly used word, the definition of “sustainability” can be difficult to pin down. In its 2015 Eco Pulse survey, marketing firm Shelton Group found that only 59 percent of respondents believed they understood the term. In 2010, Ad Age magazine included it in a list of the year’s “jargoniest jargon.”
Jargon or not, the concept of sustainability is gaining influence in the corporate world. So, what does sustainability actually mean for organizations today, and what part does it play in occupational safety and health?
Sustainability is used most widely to describe environmental concerns – the need to minimize ecological damage and preserve natural resources. In its 1987 report “Our Common Future,” the United Nations’ Brundtland Commission defined the idea much more broadly as “meet[ing] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
By that definition, sustainability sounds a lot like old-fashioned forward thinking. United Rentals, an equipment rental company, is one business that has embraced the concept.
“We try to manage our business for forever – not for today, not for this quarter,” said Jim Dorris, vice president of health, safety, environment and sustainability at the Stamford, CT-based company. “It makes us a more sustainable, more resilient company.”
In recent years, sustainability has become synonymous with corporate responsibility, an idea that encompasses more than environmental considerations. In 1994, author and consultant John Elkington coined the concept “triple bottom line,” adding “people” and “planet” to “profit” as a new way to measure performance. That idea has influenced how organizations view sustainability today: as a union of economic, social and environmental responsibility.
“Sustainability is about a business honoring its fiduciary obligations in an ethical way – one that balances the needs of all stakeholders,” said Patrick McCorry, vice president at safety consulting firm DEKRA Insight in Oxnard, CA. “That includes shareholders, customers, employees, the communities in which it operates, and society at large.”
Occupational safety and health fits squarely within the social responsibility component, placing safety professionals at the heart of their employers’ sustainability strategy. “Worker safety and well-being are crucial elements of any sustainability effort,” McCorry said. “You cannot claim to be a sustainable, ethical, values-based organization if you’re hurting people and changing the lives of families and communities.”
The relationship to safety
The concept of sustainability recognizes that economic, social and environmental responsibility aren’t isolated from each other. “They’re all interrelated,” said Grant Zoldowski, director of environmental management for United Rentals. “If you’re looking at sustainability as how you sustain the company forever, you have to look at each of those attributes and understand how they’re going to affect each other.”
Sometimes the relationship is mutually beneficial, as in the case of United Rentals’s 2011 initiative to retrofit many of its facilities with energy-efficient lighting. Although the environmental and economic benefits of energy savings were clear from the start, the organization soon found that brighter light also meant safer working conditions for its employees.
“There was strong feedback to upper management,” Zoldowski said. “Our CFO had an employee come up to him and say, ‘I can actually see what I’m working on.’”
Other times, the relationship is more complicated. Linda Delp, director of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program, gave the example of environmentally conscious building designs that include energy-saving skylights that may raise the risk of falls for workers cleaning them. She also noted a recent case of a battery recycling facility in Los Angeles where lead emissions threatened thousands of neighboring house- holds – a stark example of how an ostensibly “green” enterprise can be extremely unsustainable.
“They were operating out of compliance with regulations for many years, and they’ve shut down now,” Delp said. “But the question is, what is happening to those workers who sustained high lead levels? What is happening to the community in terms of the environmental contamination? And what is happening in terms of jobs for people in that community?”
Although this may be an extreme example, it highlights the need for safety professionals to be part of the sustainability conversation from the start. “When a company makes decisions on how to allocate resources, whether that’s in expansion, [merger and acquisition] activity or new product introductions, are we including the safety impact in those decisions?” McCorry said. “Are we operating our business in a way that’s aligned with the principles on which our sustainability strategy is based? If safety professionals are involved early in these decisions, they can help guide how decisions are made about plant design, equipment selection and the levels of guarding from hazards.”
Global Solutions Inc.
The growth of this movement in the business world is evident in the rise of sustainability reporting, also known as corporate social responsibility or environmental, social and governance reporting. In its 2017 Survey of Corporate Responsibility Reporting, Chicago-based accounting firm KPMG found that 93 percent of the world’s 250 largest companies already were engaging in this type of reporting.
“The number of public companies that have sophisticated sustainability reports and metrics publicly available on their websites is growing rapidly,” McCorry said. “Today, sustainability is about being transparent and showing that we care – about our people’s safety, about our environmental impact, etc. And that transparency needs to be matched with firm commitment to eliminating exposures for workers and for the environment.”
Standards organizations such as the Global Reporting Initiative and the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board are taking this idea a step further, pushing to incorporate sustainability measures into annual financial reports. In fact, KPMG found that 78 percent of the world’s largest companies already have adopted integrated reporting.
This finding is significant because it suggests that investors regard sustainability information as “material,” or relevant to their investment decisions, said Kathy Seabrook – chair of the Center for Safety and Health Sustainability and founder of consulting firm Global Solutions Inc. in Mendham, NJ.
“Companies and investors are coming together with this idea that you need to report on safety and health, environment, and corporate governance as material risks and opportunities, because that’s what investors are looking for – at the end of the day, this is about decision-making,” Seabrook said.
Companies now can show their sustainability credentials by touting their place in the rankings of the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices, the Financial Times Stock Exchange’s FTSE4Good Index Series and the Corporate Knights’ Global 100.
Investors aren’t the only audience for sustainability reporting. “The customers and talent that our company is trying to attract have a strong preference toward socially responsible companies with a strong position on the environment, people and the communities that they operate in,” Dorris said. “We’ve been able to differentiate our business on the position of safety, and I think that’s helped separate us from our competition.”
If your company isn’t already engaged in sustainability reporting, it’s probably on the horizon, according to Seabrook. “Larger multinational companies have been early adopters of sustainability reporting, and many are requiring that of their supply chain as well,” she said. “If one of these companies is looking for like-minded organizations to work with and you want to supply whatever component, part, chemical or service they need, sustainability will be a competitive advantage, so it will absolutely trickle down to smaller companies.”
When it comes to reporting on occupational health and safety metrics, however, Seabrook sees a lot of room for improvement. “It is not widespread, and when you do see it, it’s typically the lagging indicators of performance, like lost time injury rates or recordable injury rates,” she said. She attributes this to reliance on the GRI Sustainability Reporting Standards – the most widely used framework – which do not include the kinds of leading safety indicators the Center for Safety and Health Sustainability advocates, such as risk assessments, training and hazard identification.
In Safety+Health’s 2018 Job Outlook survey, 59 percent of respondents said sustainability was part of the safety and health function at their organization. However, sources agree that many safety professionals’ roles are limited to contributing safety metrics for sustainability reporting.
“They get involved in the data collection, but not in the proactive sustainability discussions,” Seabrook said.
However, many see the potential for sustainability to advance the role of safety professionals and help them make their case to the broader organization. “In a lot of organizations, health and safety tends to be pretty ‘siloed’ – they’re on the outside looking in,” Dorris said. He sees the sustainability movement as an opportunity to connect the safety and health function to other areas of the company, and to align safety goals with those of the broader business.
For example, United Rentals’ new RPM QuickConnect technology allows the oil in the company’s power-generation fleet to be changed without spilling a drop, saving thousands of gallons of oil a year (plus all the materials previously used to clean up spills), helping to prevent injuries and cutting the time spent on oil changes in half. “That initiative wasn’t just driven by the health and safety department – that was the fleet department, safety department, operational excellence team and field operations all working in concert,” Dorris said. “If we had all stayed siloed ... we might never have done it.”
Protecting workers is crucial to good long-term business management, Seabrook said, whether you call that sustainability or not. “So what safety professionals do technically doesn’t change,” she said. “What changes is our ability to influence the business. You cannot have a sustainable company without an engaged, innovative workforce. We, as safety and health professionals, can leverage the fact that the world is saying occupational health and safety is material to business. We have a line of sight to the boardroom now, because materiality and human capital management are what your board of directors, your C-suite and the investment community are looking at.”
The first step, McCorry said, is to get acquainted with your organization’s overall sustainability strategy. If your company has a chief sustainability officer, join that person’s team. “The goals of safety are 100 percent aligned with the goals of a serious sustainability strategy, and you provide a unique perspective on what the company is doing to ensure the well-being of your employees and communities,” McCorry said. “Embrace a focus on sustainability and think of safety in this wider context.”