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The Future of EHS

June 7, 2022
EHS managers have a once-in-a-generation chance to make working life more flexible, modern and safer for everyone.

COVID-19 has caused a revolution in the environment, health and safety (EHS) function at workplaces across the world, in what has become a story of two timelines for industry leaders.

The pandemic has already proved transformational, and the executives we spoke to believe the process is not yet complete. The immediate impact set off a broad pattern of change in the first days of lockdowns, one which moved quickly from the corporate front lines to the boardroom via the back office. The transformation would soon deepen, as companies continued to adapt alongside a “new normal” that took hold as governments eased restrictions. The combined effect is likely to reshape the scope of health and safety management, as well as the way in which executives fulfill core operations while managing budgets and looking ahead to dealing with climate change.

The Impact on Function

First, the pandemic touched the EHS function and how it operated. Our survey shows how the speedier adoption of a range of new technologies kept essential EHS processes working during lockdown, protecting vital work just when head counts declined in the workplace. EHS leaders reached for cutting edge digital tools—from mobile applications to wearable devices and even virtual reality—to keep safety auditing, training and compliance operations in place. Nearly a third (32%) of executives told us last year they were already using location-tracking wearables, while another 8% said they planned pilot schemes.

At the same time, the structure of professional life changed around us, with many more people working from home. The abbreviation WFH became as ubiquitous as the EHS shorthand itself in the industry. Remote workers remained covered by EHS governance, taking awareness of ergonomics and screen fatigue from the office desk to the kitchen table or the spare room the world over. Next came the hybrid-working model as government-mandated restrictions on personal movement eased, bringing in a new blend of working, with some days spent at home and others in the office. With that came fresh subject matter for risk management briefings, which started to cover the commute and other forms of traveling for work.

This widening scope introduced a cultural change, altering workers’ understanding of what EHS is and what it means for them. The common perception that it was all about compliance evolved into the wider concept of total worker health. The mental well-being of people undertaking their duties when confined to their homes took on added and greater importance, with staff turning to employers’ EHS functions for support beyond the traditional sphere of occupational health, which was more limited to clinical care in the office or on the shop floor.

What the Future Holds and What We Know

That brings us to the second part of the COVID-19 storyline: the second-round effects of the pandemic, much of which still lie ahead. A clear majority of the EHS leaders in our research last year—58%—said improving mental health and worker wellness would be a high priority for 2022 and 2023.

That follows the increased profile of EHS activities within businesses, with an improved profile at the most senior levels of corporate management and a higher priority for budgets. Increased spending will help shape the working patterns ahead in the “new normal.” Occupational health operations seem poised for the biggest increase, as employers prioritize general health and fitness while also funding ongoing pandemic management, vaccination management and travel management.

The confluence of these trends is likely to affect corporate structures, influencing the way in which companies organize their welfare and safety operations, and where these two strands meet. It will be necessary to manage interlinked responsibility for total worker health between EHS functions and human resources departments, where they have often been traditionally located.

Hybrid working models are expected to be retained and the software running them is likely to include integrated EHS features, designed to keep staff engaged as they split their professional lives between the office and their homes. Such efforts may help offset the impact on staffing levels caused by the “Great Resignation,” in which a notable proportion of office workers have left their previous employer rather than return to their previous commuting frequency.

Some Things Remain the Same 

Amid all the change, some important things remain the same. But here, too, there are benefits from what we have learned from dealing with COVID-19. The traditional EHS priority of accident prevention remains crucial, as do established procedures to recognize and maintain adequate risk awareness and risk management.

As EHS professionals benefit from the range of new tools at their disposal, sharpened by the increased use and innovation of the pandemic years, that improvement couldand shouldgather momentum. Artificial intelligence (AI) techniques pioneered during the pandemic could help in identifying danger areas. AI could also be used to fully understand the patterns within the increased amount of data now being gathered on overall worker health.

Meanwhile, the raised profile of EHS operations necessitated by COVID-19 could help us all save lives by lowering the number of fatal injuries—and at a faster pace. Deaths in the workplace declined by only 5% between 2003 and 2018 to 5,250 a year. It may be that the pandemic has given us a much better chance to further reduce that figure now that safety operations are at the front and center of working culture and practice, liberated from what once often felt like a “silo of compliance.” Increased EHS budgets will play an important role in this vital part of all our operations.

Optimistic about the Opportunities Ahead

The pandemic has made EHS leaders more agile. It catalyzed their use of state-of-the art technology, helping them keep going at the height of the uncertainty. COVID-19 reshaped the contours of the working world. Now, the industry can see opportunities ahead. From the move to hybrid work arrangements to the growing use of AI, wearables and mobile technology to the broader and deeper understanding of the importance of safety procedures, executives are ready to ensure that this stronger scope complements their traditional focus on the highest risk areas of their business.

Familiarity with rapid innovation in response to challenges that both lack precedent and pose great risk will also help with another area expected to come under the EHS remit: improving sustainability and fulfilling environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria. These are ever-more important considerations for companies and their shareholders alike.

The executives we spoke to expect this area to be part of their future responsibilities, with knowledge of the relevant frameworks important. They expect EHS functions to play an important role in gathering the data needed to deliver change against challenging criteria. This process will not be easy and will have a high profile as the world moves on from the COVID years.

Over 400 firms have already signed up for The Climate Pledge, an initiative designed to establish net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. If EHS leaders convert their experience of the pandemic into an equally broad and deep ability to forge meaningful change from potential crises, they will be well placed to handle the new monitoring and reorganization procedures needed to meet such ambitious and important targets.

Taken together, the findings of the Verdantix survey and their implications provide grounds for optimism. They show how, with further hard work, the gravest global health crisis in a century may one day be recognized as a turning point for the workplaces of the world. Our story of two timelines—one sudden and one sustained—transformed not just the way in which people work, but also the workplaces to which they returned, and what they could go on to achieve.

Heightened staff awareness of the importance of EHS—what it really means and what it can do for them—offers an opportunity in and of itself. These are promising times in which EHS managers are well placed to seize a once-in-a-generation chance to make working life more flexible, more modern and, above all, safer for everyone.

Bill Pennington is research director, EHS with Verdantix, a research and advisory firm. His current agenda focuses on EHS and sustainability services and product stewardship as well as benchmarking EHS technology buyer’s budgets, priorities and preferences globally. He comes from a background of corporate EHS roles in the manufacturing and logistics industries.

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