Occupational Safety and Sustainability

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Occupational health and safety professionals should be part of corporate sustainability initiatives.

The concept of sustainability grew out of the environmental concerns of the 1960s and ’70s. Many people still think of sustainability in those terms: that it’s about minimizing ecological damage and preserving natural resources for future generations.

The definition has expanded, however, especially on the business side, where it now encompasses ethics and corporate responsibility. “Green” businesses and building techniques, renewable energy sources, and sustainable business practices have gone mainstream. What has been missing from the equation, however, is worker safety.

That notion is starting to change. Businesses today recognize that economic, social, and environmental responsibility are intertwined and that occupational health and safety sustainability merits equal consideration.

Companies can only be sustainable when they pay attention to the safety, health, and welfare of their workers, according to “Sustainability in the Workplace,” a white paper by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

“A building, no matter how energy efficient or healthy for occupants, is not sustainable if a construction worker is killed while building it,” the report notes. “Furniture, no matter how responsibly the wood is harvested, is not sustainable if a woodworker loses a limb during manufacturing.”

As the connection between sustainability and worker well-being becomes increasingly accepted, more companies will need graduates with a bachelor’s degree in occupational health and safety to be in the forefront of workplace sustainability solutions.

Defining Sustainability

Operating a business in a sustainable manner, OSHA maintains, means “protecting the workforce, giving back to the community, ensuring a world where the business can continue to operate, and providing value to customers and shareholders.” Most contemporary businesses know that concept as the “triple bottom line.”

The term, coined in 1994 by author and sustainability consultant John Elkington, refers to evaluating performance by considering the business’ impact on people, profit, and the planet, according to Safety and Health magazine in its article, “Sustainability: What the concept means for today’s safety professionals – and their employers.”

“That idea has influenced how organizations view sustainability today: as a union of economic, social and environmental responsibility,” Safety and Health notes. “Occupational safety and health fits squarely within the social responsibility component, placing safety professionals at the heart of their employers’ sustainability strategy. … Experts see the potential for sustainability to advance the role of safety professionals and help them make their case to the broader organization.”

The Role of Safety Professionals in Corporate Sustainability Efforts

Ideally, according to OSHA and other experts, occupational health and safety (OHS) professionals should be involved early in a company’s sustainability initiatives.

“Fully articulating and integrating OHS within sustainability efforts can help expand the thinking of those already involved in sustainability and also provide a platform for OSHA and the community of safety and health professionals to move beyond traditional roles,” the OSHA paper notes.

In its article, “Sustainability and Occupational Safety,” EHS Today sums up suggestions for advancing health and safety within the framework of sustainability, including:

  • Initiating partnerships designed to support integrated OSH and sustainability activities
  • Enhancing interdisciplinary training and education for business professionals as well as workers and the larger OSH community
  • Measuring the impact that safety and health performance has on business outcomes
  • Recognizing employers that successfully integrate OSH into their sustainability efforts
  • Improving access to OSH data for reporting purposes

The magazine also cites instances where OHS concerns affected sustainability initiatives:

  • In 2011, United Rentals installed energy-efficient lighting in many of its facilities, but quickly discovered a downside.

“Although the environmental and economic benefits of energy savings were clear from the start, the organization soon found that brighter light also meant safer working conditions for its employees,” the magazine notes.

  • In Los Angeles, energy-saving skylights have been frequently specified in the design of environmentally conscious buildings – but skylights can also increase the fall risk for workers who have to clean them.
  • Los Angeles also had a case of an ostensibly “green” operation that proved to be unsustainable – a battery-recycling facility whose lead emissions threatened nearby homes. The facility had been non-compliant with regulations for years, but its shutdown raised other issues, including the well-being of former workers with high lead levels and contamination in the community.

Measuring OHS in Sustainability

Sustainability has been shown to create efficiencies and improvements that bring about savings for the business, according to the Campbell Institute, the research center for the National Safety Council. But the effects of OHS are more challenging to calculate.

“Determining a direct correlation between environmental sustainability and occupational safety is not a straightforward task,” says the institute’s report, “Profiles in Sustainability: Business, Community and Environment.”

“There just isn’t a consistent and accurate method to establish a connection between, say, a reduction in water or energy and a total recordable incident rate.”

Finding better ways to evaluate sustainability, the report concludes, “can be one solution to determining a stronger, more direct connection between environmental sustainability and occupational safety.”

About Eastern Kentucky University’s Bachelor of Science in Occupational Safety Program

EKU’s online Bachelor of Science in Occupational Safety program introduces students to occupational health and safety terminology and can prepare graduates for a range of responsible positions in the health and safety field.

The program is 100 percent online and taught by safety professionals with significant experience in both the public and private sectors. For more information, contact EKU today.

Recommended Reading:

New OSHA Standards for 2019

7 Essentials to Risk Identification

Encouraging Employee Compliance with Personal Protective Equipment


Sustainability in the Workplace: OSHA

Sustainability and Occupational Safety: EHS Today

Sustainability: What the concept means for today’s safety professionals: Safety and Health

Profiles in Sustainability: The Campbell Institute