As environmental, social and governance (ESG) efforts become a greater focus of corporations around the world, many safety professionals are being tapped to play a part.
That doesn’t mean the emergence of these initiatives isn’t without controversy.
During a webinar hosted by our Environmental Practice Specialty, Dave Crowley, CSP, CHMM, STS, vice president of EHS and Sustainability at HP Hood LLC, shared a few quotes from a discussion on the topic that took place in a Facebook group for safety professionals.
Some were skeptical about ESG impacting the safety profession, saying “that’s ops and HR territory” or “I think of politics, marketing and sales.” Others felt ESG fell squarely in the safety professional’s purview: “ESG is a huge opportunity for the EHS professional. It’s a worthy effort equal to the idea of helping people go home at the end of the day the same way they came to work.”
In Crowley’s view, ESG is here to stay and it will help promote the safety profession. But how did this initiative come to be, what is the safety professional’s role and how will it play out in the future?
Crowley spoke with two prominent experts in the field, Kathy Seabrook, CSP, CFIOSH (UK), EurOSHM, FASSP, CEO of Global Solutions Inc. and co-chair of the Capital Coalition’s human capital in occupational health, safety, and well-being project group, and Malcolm Staves, FIChemE, global vice president of health and safety at L’Oréal, about the role of ESG in the safety profession.
How ESG emerged as a measure of corporate success
Over the past 25 years, corporations have moved from primarily creating wealth for their shareholders to taking a more holistic view that considers all stakeholders, from investors to employees to customers, Seabrook says.
“People and their health, safety and well-being create value and long-term sustainability for a company and its stakeholders,” she says. This is part of ESG and is “a true reflection of corporate performance — a company’s true north.”
She says ESG and safety have always been intertwined, dating back to the voluntary, independent standards organization Global Reporting Initiative in 1997, which created disclosure standards around safety and health.
Back then, initiatives were mainly focused on the environment as companies began reporting to the nonprofit Carbon Disclosure Project in 2000.
Around 2005, investors began seeking more information with the establishment of the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment network for sustainable development.
Since then, the number of agencies, nonprofits and reports measuring environmental, social and governance impact has only grown — and so has the safety professional’s role in them.
How the safety professional intersects with ESG
As evidenced by the Facebook group discussion Crowley cites, many safety professionals still believe the social aspects of ESG belong to the human resources department.
“What they fail to realize is, according to the [International Labor Organization], 2.8 million people die every year because they went to work,” Staves says.
Just last year, the International Labor Organization (ILO) declared a “safe and healthy working environment” a fundamental human right.
“Why shouldn’t health and safety and not going home in a coffin be a human right?” Staves says. “Why shouldn’t it be within the ESG agenda?”
This puts safety professionals squarely at the intersection of the discussion on social responsibility, he says, adding that sustainability also encompasses employee safety.
“I’ve sometimes been frustrated by the fact that for a lot of companies, sustainability equals only the environment,” he says. “We really want to put people back into sustainability because we think healthy, well people will also do the right thing for the environment.”
There are other ways that safety professionals are intertwined with ESG:
Environmental auditing: The most obvious way a safety professional contributes to ESG is through the environmental aspect of their role. Regardless of whether a safety professional falls specifically under the EHS umbrella, many of their responsibilities tie back to environmental safety and reporting on issues like carbon emissions, pollution, hazardous materials handling and more.
Governance creation: The same skill set that a safety professional uses to write a program for respiratory protection or lockout/tagout can translate to writing governance policies, Staves says.
Cross-departmental cooperation: Safety professionals spend a lot of time drawing participation across departments, Crowley says. “We have soft skills that enable us to do problem-solving to aid the ESG space.”
Total Worker Health® perspective: Safety professionals speak the language of the whole worker, Crowley says, and that relates to social responsibility. Seabrook adds: “We really speak about people and people are a company’s greatest asset, its human capital. The concept of capital is wealth and wealth creation, increasing the value of a company with its stakeholders. People create value. The language of whole worker health translates to the language of business.”
Disclosure reporting: “In terms of our engagement, we’re about decision making which can lead to disclosure,” Seabrook says. “Disclosure refers to a company’s external reporting including investors and customers.”
Providing assurance: Ensuring the safety of employees and the assurance of a safety management system ties back to governance. This also creates resilient companies, a goal of ESG measurements.
What the future holds for ESG and safety
While increased voluntary adoption will compel more companies to initiate ESG efforts, the panelists see ESG evolving in two specific ways.
First, the agencies and nonprofits that track ESG reporting will pay attention to the declaration from the ILO about a safe and healthy work environment being a human right.
“They’re all going to start to change, and just like you’ve seen this drive of ESG on the environment . . . we’re going to have the same impetus looking forward for the next 10 to 15 years driving health and safety to the next level,” Staves says.
Second, the International Sustainability Standards Board recently issued the first globally recognized sustainability disclosure standards.
“This is what’s going to provide consistency across the world and comparability of how companies are actually performing in all aspects of ESG, including worker safety, health and well-being,” Seabrook says. “As safety professionals, we are no longer just seeking a seat at the table, we are the table.”
Ultimately, the panelists say it’s important for safety professionals to see themselves and workforce safety and health as part of ESG initiatives.
“We know ESG is is a front burner issue around the globe and, inevitably, safety professionals will be part of it,” Crowley says.