How Safety Fits with Sustainability

If we continue to focus on the tactical issues and play "safety cop," we will impede efforts to suggest safety is truly a foundation for sustainable growth.

Sustainability is a topic that continues to gain the attention of safety, health, and environmental (SHE) professionals. Typically a board-level issue, sustainable growth strives to balance social, economic, and ecological issues.

At their most basic level, sustainability and safety are really about the same thing: conserving resources. In the case of sustainability, those resources are typically thought of as environmental. In the case of safety, the resources are human. Despite this common ground, discussions of sustainability are only beginning to give attention to safety.

We often find the "E" part of SHE dominating because sustainability has a strong focus on energy, materials, and many things that might fall under the umbrella of "green." Additionally, the social and economic parts of sustainability often focus on the results of projects and may or may not touch on occupational safety. As an example of assessing sustainability of a new building, we can look at LEED certification -- Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

LEED measures:

  • Sustainable sites
  • Water efficiency
  • Energy and atmosphere
  • Materials and resources
  • Indoor environmental quality
  • Location in linkages
  • Awareness in education
  • Innovation in design

With no mention of safety, one must wonder how well safety is integrated into this process.

  • When skylights are part of the design, is the hazard and risk to construction or maintenance workers considered?
  • Do architects and engineers design in anchor points for fall hazard control, or is that an afterthought when work begins?
  • Does a serious or fatal injury detract from earning certification?

Unintended Consequences
There are other examples showing where the quest for energy efficiency and cost savings may have been shortsighted. In a recent teleconference of the Lean & Safe Network (it is free and open to all interested parties; send an e-mail to the author at mtaubitz@fdrsafety.com), we discussed a recent article, quoted in part below:

Energy-efficient traffic lights can't melt snow

By Dinesh Ramde
MILWAUKEE (AP) -- Cities around the country that have installed energy-efficient traffic lights are discovering a hazardous downside: The bulbs don't burn hot enough to melt snow and can become crusted over in a storm -- a problem blamed for dozens of accidents and at least one death.
"I've never had to put up with this in the past," said Duane Kassens, a driver from West Bend who got into a fender-bender recently because he could not see the lights. "The police officer told me the new lights weren't melting the snow. How is that safe?"
Many communities have switched to LED bulbs in their traffic lights because they use 90 percent less energy than the old incandescent variety, last far longer and save money. Their great advantage is also their drawback: They do not waste energy by producing heat.

Signs of Interest in Linking Green and Safe
The good news is the signs of interest in worker safety and health on green projects. NIOSH, which is leading the discussion, held a national workshop on the topic in December 2009. The workshop linked the concepts of preventing injuries and deaths through better design with the concepts of sustainable design. However, more needs to be done.

With the observation that there is may be little or no discussion of safety when sustainability or "green" is being discussed, this article will focus on companies desiring to link a sound safety processes with sustainability. First, a quick review of things that might constrain success:

  • Safety is in a silo and not linked with environment or operations.
  • Safety is not well linked with "lean" or other initiatives to improve operational performance.
  • Safety is focused mainly on tactical issues of OSHA recordkeeping, incident reporting, personal protective equipment, and other elements that, while necessary, do not resonate as part of long-term strategic initiatives.
  • "Safety culture" is promoted.
  • Top management's support is sought.

Let's take these in reverse order:

Top managers hired SHE professionals to support them. We should expect their leadership and provide the necessary support. The next time you hear a colleague claim his or her internal "customers" are employees, please challenge that assertion. Let's have leaders focus coordinated attention (production quality, safety, environment, etc.) on employees discharging responsibility and accountability throughout the operational chain of command. SHE professionals should be providing administrative and technical support to ensure operations management has the skills, knowledge, and processes to assure safety is a value in the organization. If we cannot firmly embed that we support top leaders, we have no chance of building a bridge to sustainability.

Next, "safety culture" is a myth within our profession. There is only organizational culture. Imagine being a top executive and trying to mesh "safety culture" with "quality culture" with "production culture," etc. There is only culture, and safety must be a value within that culture. Not number one, not a "priority," but a value because the organization respects people.

If we continue to focus on the tactical issues and play "safety cop," we also will impede efforts to suggest that safety is truly a foundation for sustainable growth.

Last are the issues of linking with "lean" and safety being in its own silo. As I reflect upon several decades in safety and engineering, I recognize that I focused on the technical side of safety, including management systems, documented risk assessment, safety through design, voluntary standards, etc. Those are absolutely necessary but insufficient for tomorrow's challenges. Using OSHA metrics and technical jargon understood by SHE personnel but not many others were but a couple of factors contributing to my operating in the "safety silo."

Building a Bridge with Values
What I failed to address was making safety a value within the organizational culture. When you have that, you have the cornerstone for linking safety with sustainability. Safety as a value must first permeate the entire organization. Next comes the integration of safety with lean.

For brevity's sake, think of lean as the identification and elimination of waste. Whether you use "lean" or some other descriptor for improving operational performance matters not. Make sure safety is integrated into those efforts. Safety is really about the elimination of waste, as well -- the waste of human resources because of accidents and illnesses.

Many organizations focus on improving the performance of workers, whether production or service, but may fail to address improving the office and business systems. Yet it is management and staffs who are challenged with developing initiatives for the future while running the business on a daily basis. Should they not be leading the charge and practicing lean and safe within their daily business? When that happens, we may find architects and engineers working on future "green" buildings considering the safety of the construction crew along with those who will perform necessary maintenance. We also might have decision-makers weighing the safety of the driving public and their own maintenance crews when thinking about LED stop lights in cold climates.

Once respect for people (safety) infuses itself in the designs of the future, it's easy to see how it all works together. Lean processes and safety are all about the elimination of waste. When combined, they provide a powerful vision for a sustainable future.

This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Mike Taubitz (810-542-0885 or mtaubitz@fdrsafety.com), senior advisor at FDRsafety (Brentwood, Tenn.), is a former Global Director of Safety at GM. FDRsafety provides safety staffing, OSHA compliance consulting, safety awareness training, and expert witnesses services. His blog posts can be found at www.fdrsafety.com, and he invites those who are interested to join the LinkedIn group SHE, sustainability and lean.

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