Dr. Paul Pritchard, Sustainability Specialist Consultant at RyderMarsh OCAID explores the worlds of sustainability and health and safety and finds they aren’t so different after all.
The future of occupational health and safety is clearly one of the most active debates in the profession, often deliberating on how to cement its position as a strategic corporate concern. My own minor contribution to this discussion comes as someone who has spent their career working in corporate environmental management (and latterly in sustainability). In that sense I am an outsider, albeit one who has worked alongside OHS functions in a variety of organisations (and sometimes as part of combined functions). In my view the different disciplines still have much to learn from each other and a closer exploration of ways of working together has the potential to ensure realise greater benefit.
Of course there are many similarities between environment and OHS; both have appeared on the corporate agenda relatively recently and have often tended to sit apart from the main part of the business. It is however the differences that have been most obvious to me down the years. Most striking is the strength of the regulatory driver. Many times I have been envious of legal requirements to take OHS action. Combine this with an active regulator and highly visible court cases and there is a little corporate debate on the need for a dedicated (and qualified) OHS function. Of course there is also a long standing body of environmental regulation, not least in the process sectors (where it is surely not coincidental that one commonly encounters combined HSE functions) nonetheless the environmental legal requirements for most companies are comparatively light.
The result is that environmental proponents have had to vigorously argue the case for corporate action in terms other than those of legislation, sometimes talking about resource efficiency, other times about customer needs, employee engagement or occasionally ethics (it’s the right thing to do). More recently this has developed beyond impact reduction into thinking about an organisation’s wider role in society and responding to major global challenges such as climate change. This move towards sustainability coupled with greater demands for corporate transparency has lead to increased interest in how value can be added to the company. In my view OHS has played a relatively small part in this development, notwithstanding its importance to many organisations.
The current trend towards well-being suggests a broader way forward for OHS, not only in its role in culture development and employee engagement but also to the emerging sustainability consensus about needing to accommodate concerns beyond the environment (highlighted for example in the recent COP21 Paris agreement on climate change). Drawing on the sustainability community’s experience of assessing and pitching the case for adding value (beyond compliance) coupled with the obvious OHS potential around well-being should support greater engagement throughout companies.
I have been told that my long-held view on the differences between environment and OHS (which I felt were quite significant) was actually quite a well known phenomenon called ‘the narcissism of small differences’. Neighbours or groups with very similar views/experiences overemphasize their differences and fail to recognise just how similar they actually are. Certainly we should acknowledge what makes our respective disciplines unique (without aiming to make one area subsidiary to the other) but working together more closely should surely lead to more than the sum of the parts.