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How does workplace safety and health align with sustainability?

OSHA Assistant Secretary David Michaels reveals surprising connections, as well as where employee engagement comes into play.

In May, we were contacted by representatives from the U.S. government’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to discuss how they might engage in efforts that bring the agency’s work into broader sustainability discussions and initiatives. We had a good discussion, connected them with corporate representatives we thought they should talk with, and asked them to let us know what they found.

The result is the recently published report Sustainability in the Workplace: A New Approach for Advancing Worker Safety and Health. It’s a deep dive into how OSHA’s worker advocacy provides an important contribution to the social aspects of any organization’s triple bottom line.

I was particularly intrigued by how this federal agency had taken the journey from regulation to "beyond compliance" to sustainability, so I arranged a conversation with David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for Occupational Safety and Health. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

John Davies: What was the impetus for your organization to study corporate sustainability and how it could help advance worker safety and health?

David Michaels: OSHA has a very important mission, which is to do everything we can to encourage employers to make workplaces safe. We know that new strategies are needed to help us achieve that mission. Just by setting and enforcing standards, we won’t be able to prevent all of the millions of work injuries and illnesses that occur every year, and so we have to engage employers differently.

Davies: Where does sustainability fit into that equation?

Michaels: The sustainability movement has a tremendous amount of traction right now. It’s focused on leadership, innovation and going beyond simple compliance. It also provides a connection to new stakeholders and partners for us. So by leveraging these forces, we think we can help employers do a better job protecting workers.

I’m impressed by the breadth of stakeholders and types of sustainability efforts they were involved in, and their willingness to consider safety and health was really refreshing.

Davies: While you were doing research and conducting interviews, what did you find surprising?

Michaels: When we were speaking with people around the country currently engaged in sustainability — whether their focus was metrics, reporting, standards and certifications, procurements, research, education or investing — all of them recognized that worker safety and health should be an essential component of sustainability efforts.

However, there were far fewer ideas and a lot less action about how this can be operationalized within their ongoing work. I’m impressed by the breadth of stakeholders and types of sustainability efforts they were involved in, and their willingness to consider safety and health was really refreshing. We began with a focus on our typical stakeholders in the safety and health and business community, but we learned that many of the activities around sustainability are not focused on safety and health, and the safety and health community is not that involved with sustainability activities.

So discussions about procurement, investing, reporting, certifications, research and metrics all provide new and interesting connections for us to pursue.

Davies: One of the things we see in sustainability is a goal to achieve more employee engagement, to get employees more involved. Do you see this ability to partner between OSH and sustainability as a way to drive employee engagement?

Michaels: Absolutely. Worker engagement is one of the fundamental tenets of a comprehensive safety and health program, so that same engagement can help identify opportunities for innovations at the employer. Worker engagement can improve not only safety and health, but also business performance. Workers have hands-on, close-up expertise, and they can provide insight into product and process design to minimize hazards and to improve efficiency. We absolutely see that.

Davies: What is the message you’d like to share with sustainability professionals? What’s the outreach that you’re looking for?

Michaels: We’re hoping they will read our report and embrace this approach as part of their sustainability efforts. As we move toward integrating safety and health metrics into reporting, for example, that they get onboard with that and help us move that forward.

Worker engagement can improve not only safety and health, but also business performance.

For example, based on a regulation that came out last July, we will be collecting and posting injury rates from several hundred thousand employers on the web. That’s a lagging indicator, but we think will be a useful part of an organization’s sustainability reporting.

However, we’d like to see more leading indicators reported such as the presence of an active safety and health program, worker engagement, management commitment, things like that. We think once employers go down that road, they’re going to find it very valuable and rewarding.

Davies: One of the things I really took out of the report that I think might be missed by some sustainability professionals is that when you look at the triple bottom line, a lot of focus is placed on environmental issues, but the role of OSHA and the social side of that triple bottom line is missing in a lot of reporting and discussions around sustainability.

Michaels: It’s interesting. It’s almost always given lip service, but then it doesn’t go beyond that. We think it’s worthwhile for corporations to go beyond that, and we’re going to try to help them get those tools so they can do that.

Davies: In many corporate sustainability reports, the social component is limited to volunteerism or philanthropy. I think this is much more key to the operation of the business.

Michaels: So do we. We think all of this links together very well, especially the integration of occupational safety and health into sustainability. And it will also provide a feedback loop to show employers that this focus will improve their performance — not just around safety, but overall.

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