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Safety Professionals on the Front Line of Sustainability

Jan 04, 2013

A new report on sustainability leadership by the National Association for Environmental Management (NAEM) confirms what many of us have suspected for years, responsibility for sustainability initiatives is most often given to environmental, health and safety professionals.

The report, entitled “EHS & Sustainability Staffing and Structure”, according to NAEM, shows that “the EHS function either leads, or shares responsibility for the majority of the top 15 initiatives identified by the respondents as "sustainability". These programs include developing sustainability strategies, setting sustainability goals, carbon footprint tracking, energy management, resource conservation and stakeholder engagement.”

Housing sustainability under the EHS umbrella makes a lot of sense to EHS & sustainability expert Tim Mohin. In his article, “Practical Sustainability - EHS Professionals in a Sustainability World,” Mohin says the communication skills and technical training required of EHS professionals make them a good fit for sustainability leadership.

He continues, “Understanding chemistry, exposure, risks, regulations etc., gives the sustainability program credibility and substance. The discipline that comes along with conducting compliance audits or developing an ISO 14001 environmental management system helps develop a data-driven sustainability program focused the priority issues.”

An oft repeated line from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night goes, “Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” The same might be said of safety professionals ­– some are born sustainers, some achieve sustainability, and, increasingly, many have sustainability thrust upon them.

However it happens, EHS professionals would do well to see it as an opportunity. While the day-to-day job often stays the same, there are some tangible benefits to sustainability leadership like greater visibility and management support for critical EHS tasks, more resources, and in best case scenarios, a seat at the executive table.

Sustainability a Growing Focus

In 1983, the United Nation’s Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Even a casual walk through the grocery store or any big box outlet will reveal the extent to which sustainability has caught hold as a key business concern and marketing device. Consumers are paying attention and using their dollars to reward businesses that make good environmental decisions. The crackers in our cabinet at home come in a box which will tell you the packaging is made from 95% recycled material, including 55% post-consumer waste, and the ink is made from vegetables and other non-bio toxic ingredients.

IBM’s Director of Environmental Compliance takes it a step further saying not only is it good business, but adds, “If companies aren’t pursuing a social and environmental agenda, their days are numbered.”

In the past, sustainability was often a loaded term that conjured up images of hippy tree huggers (no offense intended to hippy tree huggers). Today sustainability is about the triple bottom line, environment, social, and economic considerations – or, as it is often referred to – people, planet, and profit. It is as concerned with employee safety (human capital) as it is the greening of the chemical supply chain.

Even those companies not on the cutting edge of sustainable practices must contend with the growing social consciousness. As an example, there are a host of local, state, federal and international laws driving compliance and reporting obligations for those companies manufacturing, importing, and or using chemicals; and new ones are on the way.

A case in point, this week, BLR’s Environmental Daily Advisor has been writing about California’s proposed Safer Consumer Products Regulation (SCPR), a regulation that would require chemical manufacturers in that state (and those that do business there) to identify and seek safer alternatives for chemicals of concern.

MSDSonline Stands with Safety Professionals

At MSDSonline we have our own working definition of sustainability, “Make sure what we do today doesn’t hurt us, our kids, or our grandkids.” We think it’s an easy and intuitive approach - the same kind of approach we bring to our cloud-based EHS solutions.

For instance, thousands of companies rely on us to manage their safety data sheet library and get access to our database of millions of MSDSs. It’s a valuable service in its own right, saving EHS managers money and time; yet, in spirit of sustainability, it’s just the beginning.

By indexing important chemical, ingredient, and hazard information found on the safety data sheet, MSDSonline can help EHS professionals

  • Assist the transition to GHS
  • Track chemicals throughout their facility
  • Produce secondary container labels
  • Reconcile chemical inventories
  • Manage sophisticated chemical approval workflows
  • Flag and manage banned chemicals at their point of origin
  • Cross-check chemicals against environmental and regulatory lists
  • Produce exportable reports

All of these tasks (which previously were separate activities) can be achieved through a single chemical management solution. Rather than spending time on redundant, rudimentary tasks, safety professionals can set up a chain of activities that flow from a single action – saving a safety data sheet in their MSDSonline eBinder. It’s a model of sustainability. And now, thanks to mobile integration, all of these activities can be done in the field, untethering managers from their desks.

These should be exciting times for sustainability and EHS professionals. Safety, sustainability and commerce are finally coming to an apex where ‘doing the right thing’, ‘doing things the right way’, and ‘doing what’s good for business’ are nearly synonymous.

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