Budget Cuts and Environmental Career Trends

Just as in the United States, cuts to the UK&#8217;s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and <a href="http://www.defra.gov.uk/" target="_blank">Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs</a> make headlines, Vicky Kenrick explores how these cutbacks actually increase the value of environmental professionals with occupational health and safety experience and skills.

The self-proclaimed “greenest (UK) government ever” announced last October that some of its largest spending cuts would be to the Environment Agency and Natural England. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) found its overall budget cut by 30 percent, compared to government average of 19 percent.

We examined the impact these cuts and the cuts to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) budget have made to job opportunities within the environmental management and risk management sector. Defra’s budget will shrink by about £700 million (US $1.142 billion) by the end of the 4-year spending period in 2015. As a result, the department and its agencies – including the Environment Agency, which monitors pollution and protects against flooding, and Natural England, which helps look after the natural world – will have to shed 5,000-8,000 out of its total 30,000 jobs.

Nevertheless, demand for environmental expertise continues to soar as the consultancy sector grows and new corporate roles are created for climate change, sustainability and social responsibility specialists.

HSE is under pressure from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to limit the number of on-site inspections it carries out. HSE Chief Executive Geoffrey Podger also said the department would have to adapt and cut up to 350 jobs.

With fewer inspections, the responsibility to ensure a safe working environment lies even more with the corporation. Sources have revealed that industry bodies will be asked to ensure their members self-regulate while HSE inspectors focus mainly on high-risk sites. Self-regulation provides another reason for corporations to allocate occupational safety and health responsibilities to existing environmental professionals. Employees with a certification from the National Examination Board in Occupational Safety and Health and previous health and safety experience make them a very valuable asset. Chris Saunby, environmental recruitment manager at Allen & York, suggests that some job responsibilities are being combined and there is a demand for environmental managers with NEBOSH certification and knowledge of 14001 and 18001 management systems.

Cuts to HSE and the Work Environment

With cuts of 35 percent to the UK’s equivalent of OSHA, the HSE, coinciding with the fact that employers no longer face automatic health and safety inspections, the practice of EHS within the construction industry in particular recently has scrutinised in the media in the UK. As the economic climate requires companies to cut back on the work force and ask employees to take on further responsibilities, more attention is being given to how the role of the environmental manager can evolve to include occupational health and safety responsibilities.

For example, with pressure from the government cutbacks to HSE potentially impacting the safety of the workplace, the importance of assessing and preventing dangers in a workplace environment is in the limelight.

George Guy, UCATT’s acting general secretary, said: “The Conservative-led government’s financial attacks on the HSE will make workplaces more dangerous and will lead to increased deaths and injuries of workers in future.”

Reports suggest the number of construction related deaths, for example, already is on the rise. The HSE’s figures were revealed by its head of construction, Philip White, at the London conference on Safety Schemes in Procurement. The provisional statistics revealed that the 2010-11 period saw an increase of 15 in May percent over last year’s low of 42 deaths.

Waste/recycling collection operations also are vulnerable to potentially disastrous shortcuts, due to the desire to finish the allotted task in the shortest possible time. Practices that are important to good health, safety and welfare but perceived as “slowing down the job” might to be ignored in the current work environment. In addition, in the long term, financial constraints faced by both HSE and waste management companies could impact the potential to run the communication campaigns needed to continue the sector's improving health and safety record.

How will Environment Cuts Affect the Industry?

Meanwhile, by delving a little further into the proposed cuts for Defra, we are able to better assess the impact of the cuts on career opportunities in the environment sector.

Defra’s biggest cuts are in resource spending for administration and front-line services, which will be reduced by 29 percent, from UK £2.3 billion (US $3.75 billion) this year to UK£1.8 billion in 2014-15. Specifically, capital spending, mostly on flood defenses, will drop from the equivalent of US $979 million this year to US $653 million each year. With cuts in place, it is the quality and qualifications of employees that become important.

With the Environment Agency needing to eliminate 3,000 jobs in the next 3 years, environmental professionals are adding to their skill sets, not only to ensure job security but also to progress in their careers.

Dr. Paul Leinster, chief executive of the Environment Agency, recognizes the value of HSE skills. He said he supports a recently launched NEBOSH Diploma for Environmental Management “as it provides the core knowledge for practical environmental management in industry.”

Meanwhile, catastrophes at high-risk environmental sites, such as The Big Creek mine disaster, the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform and the death-defying rescue of the Chilean miners put EHS in the headlines. Combined with HSE budget cuts, fewer workplace inspections and a tighter budgetary situation for the Environment Agency, EHS professionals increasingly will be valued and even required for senior compliance-based environmental roles.

About the author: Vicky Kenrick works for Allen & York, an international sustainability recruitment consultancy. She is a marketing communications specialist and has published several articles about sustainability, energy, the environment and occupational health and safety.

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