“Is health and safety part of sustainability?” is a question I’m asked regularly; however, it is a tricky question to answer. Undoubtedly health, safety and sustainability functions have come closer and closer together, 10 years ago it was rare to hear health, safety and sustainability mentioned in the same sentence, now it is much more common. But is this trend likely to continue? Will safety and sustainability become one and the same over time? What can each function learn from the other?
Sustainability, in its broader sense, from corporate responsibility through to the environmental and the carbon agenda has held a number of links with health and safety. Both are key non-financial risks and the environmental sustainability function has for a long time been combined with health and safety.
What often dictates how much integration occurs between these functions tends to be related to the risk level of a business. At the higher end of the risk spectrum the health and safety of people is typically a key component and top priority on the sustainability agenda. Indeed, sustainability and health and safety are often seen as one and the same.
This is reflected by the professionals who lead the agendas. In medium and high risk organisations the person leading sustainability in a business also leads on safety, indeed the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) often has an academic or professional background rooted in health and safety. Examples include Neil Hawkins, CSO at Dow Chemical who holds a Sc.D., Public Health from Harvard University and Shaun Davis Group Director of Safety, Health, Wellbeing & Sustainability at Royal Mail.
This combination of safety and sustainability is much less often seen within industries at the lower end of the risk spectrum where organisations typically have a much smaller physical footprint. At these low risk organisations, sustainability is more often focused on leveraging core services to drive the sustainability program, rather than the sustainability agenda being focused on the environmental, health and safety. In addition, at the lower end of the risk spectrum the safety function is often much less prominent and often sits much further down the organisational chart with the health, safety and sustainability teams not often integrated. At best they couldn’t name a single person in the opposite team or in some cases they often don’t know the other team exists!
It will be interesting to see if the combination of safety and sustainability we are seeing in some segments of the market continues and increases further along the risk spectrum (Organisations such as the Center for Safety and Health Sustainability are doing some great work in making this a reality). One aspect on the horizon which might speed this process is the continued evolution and rising profile of the wellbeing agenda. The mental and physical wellbeing of employees and customers sits at the intersection of both health, safety and sustainability regardless of risk profile. In addition, IOSH’s new five-year strategy, “WORK 2022 – shaping the future of safety and health”, includes a mandate for increased global reach. This international segment of the strategy is likely to have a large number of common links with the work many NGOs and corporate sustainability functions are currently undertaking in developing countries. The response to the Rana Plaza disaster and increased spotlight on modern slavery and supply chains from both sustainability and health and safety are good examples of this.
Could it be we continue to see the increased use of the title “Director of Wellbeing” which has both a sustainability lead and health & safety lead reporting into them?