Health and Safety: The Missing Piece in Sustainability


Sustainability” is a term most widely used to describe environmental concerns in an effort to minimize ecological damage and preserve natural resources; but in fact, sustainability encompasses much more than that. A big part of sustainability is ensuring safe and healthy working conditions for workers, since human capital, or the value of people, is crucial to sustainable business practices.

What does sustainability actually mean for organizations, and what part does occupational health and safety (OHS) have to play in it?

The sustainability movement has steadily gained power and traction, rooted as it is in the integration of environmental (planet), social (people), and economic (profit) considerations. This is also referred to as the triple bottom line (TBL). The TBL framework seeks to gauge a corporation’s level of commitment to corporate social responsibility (CSR) and its impact on the environment over time.  The latter is a self-regulating business model that helps a company be socially accountable; to itself, its stakeholders, and the public. By practicing corporate social responsibility companies can be conscious of the kind of impact they are having on all aspects of society, including economic, social, and environmental. Many large global organizations, such as Johnson & Johnson, Google, Coca-Cola, Ford, Netflix & Spotify, are increasingly adopting sustainability business practices and successfully using sustainability as a platform for decision-making and transparency efforts within their organization.

However, as mentioned, the sustainability movement has focused mainly on environmental concerns, leaving OHS behind. With sustainability having become a board level topic, it is vital that OHS is represented at the board room table. Safety professionals are well-positioned to speak with the C-suite and board of directors about how they need to focus on health and safety in order to ensure their organization is sustainable. During a recent panel discussion at the Canadian Society for Safety Engineering (CSSE) conference in Winnipeg, September 2019, Peter Sturm, president of Sturm Consulting in Toronto, warned delegates that if health and safety professionals do not step up and get ahead of the curve, someone else in the corporation will — something he sees happening a lot. Boards of directors are going to start asking, ‘What is the safety performance of this company that I am representing?’ and the safety professional should not just be the one gathering the data but presenting it as well, Sturm said.

What is being done?

The Center for Safety & Health Sustainability (CSHS) was established to bridge the gap and ensure organizations recognize and act on the value of occupational safety, health and well-being as part of their sustainable business practices. The CSHS is a joint effort between safety and health professional organizations in the US, Canada, and the UK, to create awareness that a sustainable organization cannot be one that does not ensure safe and healthy working conditions for its employees and contractors.

“A building, no matter how energy efficient or healthy for occupants, is not sustainable if a construction worker is killed while building it. Furniture, no matter how responsibly the wood is harvested, is not sustainable if a woodworker loses a limb during manufacturing. The poultry supply chain, no matter how well free-range chickens are treated, cannot be sustainable when workers endure crippling musculoskeletal disorders while processing those chickens. Employers are only truly sustainable when they ensure the safety, health, and welfare of their workers.” – Sustainability in the workplace a New Approach for Advancing Worker Safety and Health, OSHA

Healthy and safe working conditions are also a recognized human right and OHS is a component of existing conceptual sustainability models. The United Nations (UN) has adopted it as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development; and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) has even launched an updated 2018 version of its widely used GRI 403: Occupational Health and Safety reporting standard.

The sad truth

Everyday people across the world die as a result of occupational accidents or work-related diseases – more than 2.78 million deaths per year. This means every 15 seconds a worker dies from a work-related incident or disease, and 153 people experience a work-related injury. Along with a growing (and enormous) cost to workers and their families, OHS, or rather the lack thereof, has staggering impacts on economic and social development. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates the economic burden associated with poor OHS practices at close to 4% of the global GDP each year. This is nearly equal to the combined GDP of the 130 poorest countries in the world.

The solution

Thankfully, the reality is that the implementation of an effective occupational health and safety management system (OHSMS) at worksites can help prevent or mitigate all OHS related incidents – globally! The absence of robust occupational health and safety management systems and their practices is what puts the lives of workers at risk and thereby limits the potential for sustainable development. Clearly, it’s critical that OHS is not only targeted as a sustainability measure, but that it becomes a prominent feature in sustainability reporting. True sustainability happens when organizations explicitly report OHS compliance and commit to healthy and safe working conditions, not only their workplace, but in their supply chain and in the contractors they hire. When that happens, there will be significant traction in OHS and sustainability on a global scale.

Reporting enhances sustainability and OHS practice visibility. It’s an essential part of maintaining and improving any organization.

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