I subscribe to a local Business Journal who each year recognizes top managers in business, including corporate officers, Human Resources, Facility Managers, and Information Technology. These are all important functions in organizations, serving important roles in any business. The question arises as to why Occupational Safety and Environmental managers are not recognized as important to the greater business community.
The majority of studies and white papers on this subject typically point to communication barriers between EHS professionals and executive management, and a lack of standard metrics to measure environmental health and safety’s (EH&S) performance.1 A 2006 BLR report study even discusses practical strategies for adding business value to EH&S. To put it simply, the premise is that the EH&S professional must regularly validate their usefulness to the organization. 2 EH&S professionals frequently use the argument that this function adds value because it is “the right thing to do”. Virtually no other function in an organization requires such justification, regardless of the size of the company. Simply join any Linkedin group dedicated to this profession where many of the posts query how best to achieve a successfully integrated EH&S program.
This article intends to identify some the reasons for this disconnect between EH&S as a value-added function and the perception of our function on management.
- Safety is defined differently by the EH&S professional and management
The job title and role will vary depending on the organization’s perception of the role. A good EH&S professional looks at their role as a risk manager, while management may think of this position as regulatory compliance only. This disconnect between philosophies can result in the EH&S person defending the other elements and functions outside compliance.I often tell current and prospective clients that complying with OSHA does not equate to a safe workplace.
- The technical abilities and background of the safety position
Who is the person filling the safety position? Do they have a professional certificate, a college degree, or technical discipline (e.g. Health Physicist, Toxicologist, Public Health, etc.)? Or was this person “promoted’ to fill a vacancy or a perceived need? I contend that one’s educational and experiential background helps determine how well they assimilate their knowledge of the field into effective program implementation.
- The quality and type of program supported by the organization
Organizations with no experience with formal and good (a.k.a. effectively integrated into the organization) EH&S programs will require a greater learning curve to adopt the mindset of supporting it as a value-added program. Organizations who appoint an unskilled employee as the Safety Officer, or one who is promoted without a safety or environmental background, are also likely to diminish the capacity and value of EH&S. The employee may not have any idea about integrating the program into corporate goals and objectives, and may even be obstructed from participating in areas where a skilled professional is clearer on how to support the overall objectives of the organization
See the video Introduction to Environmental Health and Safety
- Culture and the Safety Program
Numerous programs, such as behavior-based safety, have been introduced over the years, and rely almost exclusively on support from within the organizational culture to be effectively implemented. New metrics and data-tracking technologies and programs arise every few years, yet the reality is that many of these fail because the organization either feels there is no need for capital outlay for new programs or that they do not align with organization objectives.
- Funding of the Program
The quality and type of program will also determine whether the EH&S program is funded, or whether it is lumped into other departmental budgets, such as Facilities, Human Resources, or even general expenditures. EH&S programs with a budget often achieve greater returns on the program because its progress and implementation are tangible and reviewed at least annually, thereby demonstrating EH&S as serving the company’s needs and objectives.
Notice how the term organizational objectives continue to creep into this discussion. When EH&S is perceived as only compliance or as extraneous to the overall corporate goals and objectives, the professional will not be recognized as a vital support and service provider to their organization. Without a common thread defining our profession and the value it can have on an organization, EH&S professionals will not achieve industry recognition for a program solely dedicated to “doing the right thing”.
1 Galt, David. How to Promote the Business Value of EHS, ASSE PDC Proceedings Session No. 526 (Retrieved July 17, 2013)
2 Lagana, Kelly. Measuring EHS Performance, Environmental Daily Advisor. February 4, 2013.