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Why Safety Managers, Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), OSHA Recordkeeping and Technology Are Keys to Sustainability

Oct 07, 2011
What if your safety data sheets could be used to easily identify and replace the nastiest chemicals in use in your facilities?

What if your OSHA Recordkeeping tasks could help prevent accidents from happening?

What if the contributions and value of the safety department were widely recognized and respected in your organization?

No more “what ifs” – all of these things are possible under the umbrella of sustainability and through the use of available technology.

Sustainability Gets Some Respect
Sustainability as an area of responsibility for safety professionals has been gaining steam lately. For example, at Safety 2011, the annual conference for the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), sustainability was a top subject.

ASSE used the event to talk about a new Center for Safety and Health Sustainability - a partnership among ASSE, the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) and the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) that intends to “boost the voices of safety and health professionals in the rapidly growing sustainability movement.”

According to the Center’s website, a major goal of the initiative is to collaborate with the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) to develop a framework for measuring and reporting occupational safety and health (OSH) performance within the sustainability and integrated reporting frameworks.

In other words, sustainability is something that a growing number of businesses are focused on and when it comes to safety – safety professionals should help determine the metrics and approach to measuring sustainable activities under the OSH umbrella.

(The Center’s website calls GRI “a network-based organization that pioneered the world's most widely-used sustainability reporting framework.)

What is Sustainability and What’s it got to do with Safety?
But let’s back up for a moment and take a look at what we mean by sustainability and what it has to do with safety management. Here are three definitions of sustainability for you to consider.

  1. The United Nation’s Brundtland Commission report of 1983, which dealt with the change of politics needed for achieving sustainable development, included this widely accepted definition of sustainability: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
  2. The ASSE Sustainability Task Force defines safety and health sustainability as: “The responsibility to ensure that the protection of human life and the safety, health and well-being of workers, customers, and neighboring communities are a primary consideration in any business endeavor.”
  3. At MSDSonline, we define sustainability this way: “Make sure what we do today doesn’t hurt us, our kids, or our grandkids.”

It’s easy to see from these definitions how health and safety relate to sustainability. Safety professionals are tasked with the well being of the workforce and often have overlapping responsibilities around injuries and illnesses, chemical management, training and regulatory compliance. All of these areas are directly related to sustainability.

At MSDSonline, we’ve noticed an uptick in the number of EH&S managers that want help with sustainability issues, but what they usually say is something like, “My company has an initiative to…

  • cut paper waste.”
  • reduce hazardous chemicals.”
  • reduce worker injuries and illnesses.”

They don’t necessarily call it sustainability – they just know they’re being asked to find safer, more efficient ways of doing things. This is a trend everyone, in every workplace should expect to continue and grow as the benefits of sustainable practices (along with the consequences of non-sustainable actions) are realized.

Sustainability is Good Business
Far from being a drain on a company’s time and resources, sustainability is proving to be good business. The ASSE says 93% of global CEO’s surveyed felt sustainability issues are critical to their companies’ future success and the Harvard Business Review found that sustainability yields both bottom line and top-line returns. In other words, sustainable actions reduce costs and material inputs on the one end and generate additional revenue and new business on the other.

It’s this business perspective that is primarily responsible for the wide-acceptance sustainability is finding in the marketplace. Business owners will often say, I’m not doing it to be green, I’m doing it because it s good business. An example of this is the recycling initiatives many companies are undertaking; that it’s good for the environment is just a small consideration. More importantly to these businesses, recycling cuts down on the costs of having to transport and dispose of their waste and often turns an expense into a revenue generator.

Two Ways Safety Managers Can Lead
Let’s look at two specific ways safety professionals can be sustainability leaders, 1) by reducing the presence and effects of hazardous chemicals in the workplace and 2) by reducing injuries and illnesses.

Chemical management relates to sustainability on many levels. First hazardous chemicals are often bad for the environment and employee health. Anytime dangerous chemicals can be removed from a process or replaced with a safer, more environmentally friendly alternative – it’s a win/win for everyone in the lifecycle of that chemical. When an organization takes a proactive approach to identifying and replacing such chemicals, this is called “greening the supply chain.”

Today’s safety managers have a number of tools at their disposal to assist them in identifying and replacing the most dangerous chemicals in their workplaces, perhaps none more important than the material safety data sheet (MSDS). An MSDS contains a wealth of information about its corresponding chemical, including ingredient information, which can be used to the safety professionals advantage.

Combine the information on an MSDS with the latest in MSDS/chemical management technology and the MSDS becomes the key to tracking and reporting on the presence of hazardous chemicals in the workplace [see video].

A good electronic system not only organizes MSDSs according to locations on a container level, it also has regulatory cross-referencing capabilities to cross check your chemicals against numerous state, federal and international hazardous substance lists as well as workflow tools that allow you to control what chemicals are accepted and banned from entering your environment.

We’ve come a long way since the days of the yellow MSDS binder. And since MSDS information in a good electronic system is easier to find and can be used to print safety labels – it contributes to employee safety…which brings us to a second key way safety managers can improve sustainability: reducing workplace injuries and illnesses.

Reducing Workplace Accidents
Currently the OSHA Recordkeeping Standard (29 CFR 1904) requires employers to prepare and maintain records related to occupational injuries and illnesses. These records include Form 300A – the summary of incidents employers must post annually between February 1 and April 30.

Today, many employers are still using paper systems to track and manage workplace incidents. However, this too is an area where affordable technology has greatly improved the ease with which safety managers can record, manage and track all of their cases. As an example, MSDSonline’s Incident Management system [see video] includes a 4-step Case Creation Guide the walks the user through the recording process – helping the user understand what is and is not an OSHA recordable incident.

Better yet, the same system can also track near-misses and correctable actions and includes powerful analytics and reporting features that help you identify areas of improvements and prevent accidents before they happen. Injury and illness prevention is a high priority for OSHA. This year the agency announced plans to pursue a new standard called I2P2 or the Illness and Injury Prevention Program. The standard would require companies to find and fix hazards in the workplace.

For safety managers, now the easy, most efficient way to track incidents also aligns with the overall business objectives of the company. Sustainability done right brings everything across an organization in-line. From a sustainability perspective, workers are an important resource, and ensuring their safety is not only the right thing to do – it’s good business.

Consumers are increasingly interested in the way in which the businesses are run and information is readily available to them to help them make informed decisions about the purchases they make. Those companies that do not meet their responsibilities to their employees will find the consequences go beyond workers comp costs, fines and penalties and extend directly into the marketplace.

This means management will be paying more attention to sustainability and those departments that can substantially move the company forward on these important issues. For safety managers, used to being at the bottom of the priority ladder, it’s a chance to make quantum leaps in their processes and perceived value within the company organization.

Safety First
For years, safety first has been the buzzword in the workplace that some companies paid little more than lip service to. Under the umbrella of sustainability, however, companies will find it really is safety first. Getting health and safety right transforms the entire organization and fundamentally aligns it with the principles of sustainability.

If you would like to learn more about sustainability from a safety perspective, check out these other MSDSonline blog posts and links to useful information:

From Nike to OSHA: Sustainability is the New Plastics

Trickle-Down Sustainability


Safety Has Not Been Asked to Prom

Going Green: Safe and Healthy Jobs

Sustainability and Safety

Taiga Company

What It Takes to Be a Great Green Employer

Royal Society of Chemistry

Practical Aspects of Chemical Substitution

Life Cycle Assessment


Environmental Health and Safety Guidelines

Occupational Health and Safety

Other Interesting Articles

How Many Lightbulbs Does it Take to Change the World?

Busting Water Myths by the Gallons


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