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Safety professionals must get ahead of sustainability curve: Panel

If they are not at the table, messages will get lost in translation
By Amanda Silliker
| www.cos-mag.com

When the word “sustainability” is heard, green initiatives most often come to mind, but in fact, it encompasses much more than that. Sustainability looks at all the ways organizations can achieve long-term success. A big part of this is ensuring safe and healthy working conditions for workers, since human capital — the value of people — is crucial to sustainable business practices, according to panellists at the Canadian Society for Safety Engineering (CSSE) conference in Winnipeg on Tuesday.

“If you’re not looking after your people and you’re not making sure they go home safe and you’re making sure they’re knowledgeable about that, you’re not investing in your people, then you’re at risk,” said Trevor Johnson, president of CSSE. “You can’t have human capital without OHS and you can’t have sustainability without human capital.”

Today, sustainability is a topic at the board level. Safety professionals are well-positioned to speak with the C-suite and board of directors about how they need to focus on health and safety in order to ensure their organization is sustainable, Johnson said.

“OHS is turning around and looking down to the C-suite and saying, ‘What are you doing about this? How are you protecting our investment and how are you creating value? And looking after your people?’”

Peter Sturm, president of Sturm Consulting in Toronto, warned delegates that if health and safety professionals do not step up and get ahead of the curve, someone else in the corporation will — something he sees happening a lot. Boards of directors are going to start asking, ‘What is the safety performance of this company that I am representing?’ and the safety professional should not just be the one gathering the data but presenting it as well. Otherwise, it will work its way up the chain, often through human resources and then their corporate vice-president, and key information will get lost in translation, Sturm said.

“We need to have some control on those metrics and those numbers. (And sometimes) what they are asking for is not necessarily what they need,” he said. “If we don’t relate it into the business to show where it is sitting on the financials in that organization, I am telling you they are not going to be interested.”

It’s important for safety professionals to remember to convert their data into information that the C-suite and board of directors will be able to digest, said Diana Stegall, president of the American Society of Safety Professionals.

“If we don’t do that, it’s just a number, it’s a chart, but what does that really mean in the context?” she said. “So being able to be the one to present the information and provide the full picture of what this means, it’s not just X.”

Part of the challenge is for safety professionals to see themselves as part of the business structure, rather than just the health and safety department, said Mark Balsom, corporate HSE manager at CAHILL Group in St. John’s, N.L.

“That’s a big learning curve,” he said. “But we do have an impact on the bottom line. Just providing PPE is not enough… Is it being maintained? Are we being cost effective with it? Now we’re talking language that the CEOs want to hear because now we are impacting the bottom line in a positive way.”

Globally, sustainability is becoming more and more of a priority and all types of risk are being considered, from reputational and financial to occupational health and safety.

“Now, investors are saying, ‘Where there is risk, we want to know what you are doing to minimize, mitigate or eliminate that, that I have a safe investment for myself, for my company, for our people and for the future,” Johnson said.

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