Sustainability now permeates every part of the corporate agenda. How can health & safety feed into a corporate sustainability strategy, and how is the drive to demonstrate sustainability changing how businesses approach health & safety? 

What springs to mind when you think of corporate sustainability? Emissions reductions? Recycling? Probably. Reducing workplace injuries? Implementing safer working practices? Probably not. 

That’s because, to date, the ‘E’ in ‘SHE’ has dominated the corporate sustainability agenda, squeezing occupational health & safety out of the picture. 

What has health & safety got to do with sustainability? 

You might be wondering why health & safety should feature within a corporate sustainability framework.

It is essential on a strategic as well as a practical level. 

Here’s why: sustainability is bigger than focusing on ‘green’ issues. It is about looking after the ‘triple bottom line’ or the three Ps: people, profit, and the planet. It is a multi-dimensional concept that requires employers to balance their economic, social, and environmental responsibilities. 

To date, the sustainability concept has mainly been leveraged to advance improvements in environmental (planet) outcomes, such as resource usage and emissions reductions. At the same time, the issues that are often classified under the social responsibility or ‘people’ component are less understood and have attracted less attention. Organisations cannot claim to be sustainable, ethical, or values-led if they are putting people at risk or negatively impacting the lives of families and communities - economic, social, and environmental responsibility are interrelated. Health & safety sits squarely within this component, placing it at the heart of any sustainability strategy.

Sometimes the relationship is mutually beneficial. For example, an organisation might fit energy-efficient lighting throughout its buildings, thus reducing energy bills while improving working conditions.

But this is not always the case. Other times, there is tension between goals and risks, and benefits must be weighed against each other. Take the decision to invest in energy-saving skylights that increase the risk of falls from height, for example. Both examples demonstrate the need for health & safety personnel to be involved in sustainability decision making. 

Obstacles to overcome

Historically, one of the obstacles has been the perception that the role of the health & safety function within a sustainability framework is limited to contributing safety metrics. More often than not, these are the lagging indicators of performance, such as lost time injury rates or recordable injury rates. It is probably because the GRI standards are the most widely used for sustainability reporting. These do not make provision for safety indicators such as risk assessments, training, and hazard identification. More leading indicators are needed, e.g., worker safety and health performance. 

In addition, businesses need to involve health & safety in sustainability discussions. Safety is often a siloed operation that focuses mainly on record keeping, incident reporting, PPE and other elements rarely linked with strategic initiatives. The sustainability movement presents a considerable opportunity to advance the role of safety professionals, connect the health & safety function with other business areas and align safety goals with financial and environmental goals. 

Practical benefits

Even though it might be challenging at times, building health & safety into a corporate sustainability plan has several practical benefits: 

  • Embracing worker health & safety as a cornerstone of sustainability goes hand in hand with a stronger commitment to health & safety, reducing illness, injuries, and fatalities. 
  • Failing to address sustainability risks holistically can be costly. When compartmentalising risk management activities, synergies are underexploited, learnings are lost, and work is duplicated. 
  • It provides a platform and impetus for imagining new approaches for protecting workers and exploring opportunities for innovation.
  • Health & safety is a foundation for sustainable growth. An engaged, happy workforce and healthy, safe workspaces are vital ingredients in becoming a sustainable and productive company.

How can our organisation integrate health & safety within its corporate sustainability strategy? 

  • Consider implementing ISO 45001. It isn’t required by law, but it can help provide a structured framework for looking at health & safety within a broader context, including the supply chain and the community.
  • Incorporate health & safety metrics into the sustainability metrics your businesses use to audit suppliers and contractors.
  • When developing sustainability objectives, look at how environmental and economic objectives affect health & safety performance and vice versa. 
  • Involve the health & safety function in discussions about business goals and opportunities.
  • Engage the workforce to identify opportunities for innovations that improve not only health & safety but also environmental and business performance. 

A latent opportunity

To date, approaches for cross-pollinating safety and sustainability have been underexplored. The sustainability movement is going to continue to gain momentum whether or not the health & safety community chooses to engage actively. So there is a substantial latent opportunity for companies to advance health & safety through a holistic sustainability framework encompassing the 3Ps. This type of engagement can then be a powerful transformative force within and beyond the workplace.

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