The Evolving Role of Environment, Health and Safety and Sustainability
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The Evolving Role of Environment, Health and Safety and Sustainability

Thomas Day, Chief Sustainability Officer, United States Postal Service
Thomas Day, Chief Sustainability Officer, United States Postal Service

Thomas Day, Chief Sustainability Officer, United States Postal Service

Environment, Health and Safety, Sustainability (EHS&S), Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)–terms that may describe organizational structure, as well as organizational strategic approach. Depending upon the organization, the terms may have distinctly different meanings. Let’s attempt to better understand these concepts and how systems might better support the issues they are intended to address.

Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) puts forth the concept of integrating efforts to ensure compliance with environmental and safety regulations. This integration should lead to a more holistic approach that provides a safer work environment and helps to minimize an organizations impact upon the environment.

Sustainability can be defined in many ways, but I’ll rely upon the definition provided by the Environmental Protection Agency: “Sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. To pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations.”

This, like most definitions of sustainability, pushes organizations to consider impact beyond their own four walls. Recently, organizations have seen the benefit of linking Environment, Health, and Safety with Sustainability to form the concept of EHS&S.

The most comprehensive of the terms is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). As defined by Investopedia, it “is a corporation's initiatives to assess and take responsibility for the company's effects on environmental and social wellbeing. The term generally applies to efforts that go beyond what may be required by regulators or environmental protection groups.”

  Sustainability, pushes organizations to consider impact beyond their own four walls  

To understand how broad an area of topics that CSR may cover, consider the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals–No Poverty, Zero Hunger, Good Health & Well Being, Quality Education, Gender Equality, Clean Water & Sanitation, Affordable & Clean Energy, Decent Work & Economic Growth, Reduced Inequalities, Sustainable Cities & Communities, Responsible Consumption & Production, Climate Action, Life Below Water, Life on Land, Peace Justice & Strong Institutions, and Partnership for the Goals.

EHS&S and CSR are often tied together in Annual Sustainability Reports (ASR) which are now issued by the majority of publically traded companies, as well Federal, State and local government and NGO’s. The ASR serves as a venue for organizations to clearly communicate their commitment to the environment and social responsibility. The ASR provides an outline of their metrics, their targets to improve these metrics, and the actions they are taking to meet these targets.

A common theme among these concepts is the need to integrate a wide variety of activities. There is a need to create cohesive approach as to how an organization addresses the issues of the environment, health & safety and social responsibility. Most importantly, these concepts need to be integrated into the business model for the organization. Environment, Health and Safety, Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility are issues that cannot stand alone. They must be a key part of the manner by which an organization fulfills its mission.

Effective implementation of EHS&S and CSR requires the integration across functional boundaries. This can be a complicated task, but a critical step is to create support systems that are aligned in the same manner. In particular data collection and analytics need to be aligned with concept of integration.

Creating data and analytic systems that emphasize the integration of multiple functional groups builds a foundation for both EHS&S and CSR efforts. These systems create a structure that supports the desired organizational interaction as well as the desired cultural mindset.

The idea of integrating Environment with Health & Safety is not new. The addition of Sustainability, to create EHS&S is more recent. An example of systems created to integrate the data used by an Environmental group VS Health & Safety runs in parallel to the regulatory compliance issues coming from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) versus the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

For example, one can look at a hazardous material such as Asbestos. From a health & safety standpoint, the concern would the potential risk to employees who might be exposed. From the environmental standpoint, the concern would be the proper disposal of asbestos should it be removed. While the focus of concern differs, the commonality is asbestos as a hazardous material.

Continuing to use asbestos as the example, it would not make sense for Health & Safety to manage information about asbestos separate and distinct from how the data is managed by the Environmental group. But it goes beyond just these two functional groups. The presence of asbestos would be information needed by Operations, Facilities, Maintenance, and Supply Management groups as well.

We need to create data and analytic system that bring together attributes and aspects of an organization’s infrastructure for use by an array of functional groups. Such an approach not only is efficient, it also serves to prime the pump to create interaction among functional groups.

Again using asbestos as an example, Operations determines they need to place a new piece of equipment in a building which has asbestos content in the floor tile. Operations coordinate with Facilities and Maintenance who determine that holes must be drilled to bolt the equipment to the floor. Such drilling poses a potential health risk to employees because of the asbestos content in the tile.

A data and analytic system, properly structured, would make the Operations, Facilities, and Maintenance aware of the presence of the asbestos. It would also trigger a notification to both the Health & Safety and the Environmental groups. It would also notify Supply Management should the installation require the use of outside contractors who also need to know of the presence of asbestos and be required to ensure its proper handling.

The data and analytic systems needed to support EHS&S and CSR should be constructed with alignment that matches aspects and attributes of an organizations infrastructure and network. As opposed to building along functional boundaries, such an approach will greatly assist in integrating EHS&S and CSR concepts among all functional groups.

EHS&S and CSR are concepts that are with us for the foreseeable future. We need to integrate these concepts into the business model for organizations. Properly designed data and analytic systems can be a major contributor to this multi-functional integration.

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