Does Your Company Have a 'Green Wall?'

How to help employees and managers integrate and value health and environmental activities.

Arthur D. Little asserted that a "green wall" existed between environmental and business staffs of many companies and that this wall created a major roadblock to managing corporate environmental issues successfully. Survey respondents included managers of environment, health and safety (EHS) at 185 corporations in the United States and Canada, representing a broad cross section of products and services.

These managers cited two critical problems that often impeded their ability to improve their companies' environmental management. The first was a lack of integration between environmental and business issues in the company. The second was their failure to convince management that the environment is an important business issue. Another key factor was insufficient resources.

Many EHS managers commented that, while they believed that good environmental management can be a competitive advantage and an important contributor to a company's overall business performance, the EHS function is often viewed as an outside operation whose sole mission is to "keep the company out of trouble."

Most major companies today espouse a commitment to the environment through written and verbal communications to employees and the public. Some level of resources have been allocated to provide environmental safeguards for equipment, written procedures and training for employees, and adherence to programs such as Responsible Care for neighboring communities and consumers. With all of these efforts, does a "green wall" still exist?

Even though the consensus among key executives is that environmental concerns should be addressed, our findings are that this "green wall" still exists. The evolutionary process that has brought us to the point where environmental concerns are focused on as a result of their value and benefit to the health and well-being of the men, women and children affected by them is in gear and gaining momentum. Still, motivation from the perspective of "value" needs greater emphasis and understanding.

When we first entered the field in 1983, safety was, to a large degree, compliance-driven, and behavior management was a relatively new concept. Now it has become "an idea whose time has come," and most companies have begun a behavior management program or are thinking about what they can do to improve their safety results further.

Due to concerted efforts by EHS professionals, organizations such as American Society of Safety Engineers, National Safety Council, American Industrial Hygiene Association and American Chemistry Council, internal and external safety consultants and others, preventing accidents and resulting injuries, as well as property loss, is viewed as effective business management. Much of this is due to the tremendous educational effort that has occurred over the past few decades for all levels of management and labor to understand the value and benefit to themselves and others of improved safety performance.

Depending on the person, the value and the benefit may be different. Some may only value the benefit of having all of their employees available for work or the financial benefit due to lower workers' compensation costs or avoiding litigation. To others, it's the prevention of human suffering. Others believe their company owes their employees the opportunity to come to work and go home in the same or better shape than they came in and stay that way on weekends and holidays.

Whatever the reason, there are more business leaders who understand the benefits of safety and lead, manage and hold others accountable for results in this area.

The same kind of shift in awareness and commitment to health and the environment is occurring, though it is not yet at the same level that safety is in most companies. Health issues are being brought into the fold, resulting in more companies merging safety, health and the environment into a united effort. I recently spoke at the ASSE Health Symposium in Scottsdale, Ariz., on attitudinal and behavioral aspects of creating breakthroughs in safety, health and environmental performance. Many of the same attitudes and behaviors of management and line employees that affect safety performance also affect health and environmental performance.

Most companies want to change and improve not only their safety performance, but also environmental and health performance. As with safety, motivating factors and perceived value and benefits vary. They range from avoiding fines and litigation to the benefit to the health and well-being of employees, their families and the community of preventive measures to reduce pollutants in the air we breathe, the water we drink and our food supplies.

The EHS professional must be an educator and an internal "salesperson" to enroll management and labor in understanding the value and the benefit of investing in health and environmental improvements for their employees and private citizens. In a meeting with corporate EHS managers of one of our clients, we were asked to design an executive training session to help educate key business management on how to lead and support their commitment to EHS. Part of the presentation was intended to tie in their Responsible Care efforts, including safety, health, environmental and product stewardship, to all of their business functions. They want all the leaders of their business functions, such as sales, marketing, human resources, operations, R&D, purchasing and law, to see their role and responsibility in integrating safety, health and the environment into everyday business interactions and activities.

We suggested a variety of strategies to ensure that a higher consciousness of EHS was built into the attitudes and thinking of candidates to be hired and that employees knew, for example, where environmental practices of companies' products were purchased from or what raw materials were used in the development of new products.

Employees must learn that managing health and environmental issues as an integral part of how they do business has short- and long-term benefits and profit, but benefits and profit are there! Workers must learn that they have a social and moral obligation to themselves and others to responsibly handle their safety, health and environmental issues. EHS pros must do their homework, mount their horse and ride forward with their banner and message. More and more converts will follow -- some fast and others slower. In due time, with the necessary perseverance, they will come over. Will there be resistance? Yes! So techniques and strategies to deal will resistance need to be learned.

Health and environmental incidents must be reviewed and explored to determine their true causes. It is essential to understand how attitudes, behaviors and other human factors contribute to incidents and, through their improvement, help eliminate incidents.

Factors relating to inattention and loss of focus, along with conscious factors such as taking shortcuts or bypassing procedures, must be addressed. Attitudes that place other priorities above allocating resources such as time, money and personnel for health and environmental improvements must be changed. Involving line employees and management in joint training sessions, problem solving, and strategic and tactical planning to improve performance is key.

Key executives, along with the EHS professional, have an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of employees and private citizens while ensuring the viability of their company or site. Some strategies to help accomplish this:

  • Meet with key management, labor and safety leaders to discuss the various causes of health and environmental incidents and their tie-in with safety incidents. Invite appropriate corporate EHS and business managers for their understanding and support. Use specific, concrete examples to build your case.
  • Have key plant management learn to discuss the need and the benefit of addressing EHS issues as priority items in their meetings with department heads. Have them "sell up" to corporate leaders when they don't see the need or if they are diverted by other priorities.
  • Participate in production, scheduling and safety meetings. Know the products and manufacturing issues. Discuss health and environmental implications along with those relating to safety.
  • Use nontraditional metrics. No one wants to get hurt, develop ill health or pollute the environment as a result of work. Show reductions in incidents as a way to maintain a healthy work force and maximize profit. Lean companies need every person in the best health possible to support their business and production goals.
  • Talk in human terms relating to incidents and their severity, not just rates. Incidents and their severity can be translated into human terms, as well as dollars lost in direct and indirect costs.
  • Make sure safety teams or committees have clear direction and focus. Have them develop a team mission that defines their purpose and goals. Ensure that it includes health and the environment.
  • Look for ways to use what is already working. Work health and environmental education and training into existing safety and other operator, technician or mechanic training and education programs. Ensure that necessary awareness and messages regarding the value and the benefit of health and environmental improvement are built into your process. Once people's attitudes change, they begin to look for ways to improve EHS processes and prevent incidents from occurring.
  • Teach management how to participate in the EHS process. Their support is essential, and their direct participation demonstrates commitment. For example, ask them to lead parts of discussions on EHS performance, or conduct walkarounds or inspections focused on workplace EHS. Ask them to conduct informal discussions with employees they encounter to convey their commitment to EHS and elicit employees' views on pertinent issues and suggestions to resolve them. Ensure that employees receive feedback on their suggestions.
  • Set clear behavioral objectives regarding specific activities that, if carried out properly, will positively improve performance. Review these periodically for proficiency.
  • Have management attend training sessions with line personnel for EHS improvement.

Consistency and ongoing support of EHS objectives are essential. The issue needs to be communicated and managed as an integral part of the productivity process. Buy-in needs to flow from the top down. The educational process must start with the person(s) willing to pick up the banner, do his homework and educate key influencers and decision-makers who will provide the resources and accountabilities for the process to succeed. Easy? No! Challenging? Yes! Valuable? You bet! The payoff comes to each of us. Direct or indirect, we all win.

Contributing Editor Michael Topf, MA, is president of the Topf Organization, a company providing leading-edge awareness and attitudinal and behavioral improvement processes for safety, health and environmental incident prevention. The Topf Organization can be reached at (888) 41-SAFOR or on the Web at www.TopfOrg.com .

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