Editor in Chief Sandy Smith

Sandy Says: There's No Shame in Being Safe

When you buy a product, do you ask yourself if the company producing the product cares about worker safety, a healthy workplace, a clean environment, sustainability? If we're immersed in safety and we don't ask those questions, who will?

A new study – Current Practices in Occupational Health and Safety Sustainability Reporting – revealed that five organizations listed on the Corporate Knights' 2011 Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations in the World reported more than 10 work-related fatalities in a year – with one organization reporting 49 in a year while another reported 70 worker deaths in a 3-year period (2010-2012).

I actually could feel my blood pressure rise as I read that these companies, which had what I thought were outrageously high fatality rates, were considered "sustainable." How sustainable can a company be when its employees are dying?

The study, released by the Center for Safety and Health Sustainability (CSHS), revealed gaps and a lack of transparency in occupational safety and health (OSH) sustainability reporting among organizations rated highly for sustainability performance. In other words, the companies reported their sustainability and environmental performance to shareholders, but stayed mum on safety performance.

According to Tom Cecich, chair of CSHS, current EHS sustainability reporting practices make it difficult for stakeholders and investors to understand and evaluate the extent of an organization's commitment to EHS management. "It also makes it difficult for an organization to improve awareness of its own performance, better understand necessary improvements, compare itself to competitors and gauge performance improvement over time," Cecich noted.

A news article we published on EHSToday.com about the study caught the attention of Toby A. A. Heaps, the co-founder and president of Corporate Knights. He explained how they tried to take safety into account, noting:

  • Of the 24 industry groups, only 12 were scored on safety performance, which consists of a blended assessment of companies' fatalities and lost-time injury rates. 
  • On the spreadsheet available for download at the G100 site, Global Knights discloses the fatalities/total employee ratio for each G100 company for 2011. 
  • Global Knights tends to steer clear of making absolute assessments about companies' sustainability performance in favor of relative assessments. The organization looks at the number of fatalities reported by each company and then ranks the company's performance against that of its peers in the same industry group. So, 10 fatalities might put an oil and gas company in the 40th percentile but a bank in the 1st percentile (meaning worst possible performance).  

Heaps did note, "Objectively, 10 fatalities a year does indeed seem high," adding, "Remarkably, public reporting of injuries is still only disclosed by a little more than 10 percent of large corporations globally. Guidelines/mandates from securities regulators, national governments and stock exchanges on the precise injury/fatality metrics and times of reporting would be most helpful and help to leverage the utility of a lot of work that is already being done to measure safety.

I was impressed that he had reached out to me, and even more impressed when he agreed to open up a dialogue with me about the fact that few companies globally report safety data or appear to regard it as meaningful when reporting on business performance. 

I try to choose products from companies that appear to care about the environment and that do not conduct animal testing. Why wouldn't I try to choose products from companies that pay their employees a decent wage and maintain safe workplaces?

I believe that killing employees should be the definition of "non-sustainability" for corporations, but I know that many employers view fatalities as "accidents," not as a waste product of unsustainable business practices. I'd like to change that, and perhaps with the help of Toby Heaps and Corporate Knights, we can do it.

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