5 tips to becoming an EHS leader

Back in 2015, in the early developmental stages of the ISO 45001 health and safety standard, and just prior to the publication of the revised standard.

Back in 2015, in the early developmental stages of the ISO 45001 health and safety standard, and just prior to the publication of the revised ISO 14001 standard, I attended a conference that focused on the theme of “Leadership in safety”. I wrote an article about what I learned. With the publication of ISO 45001, I have revisited the article and the theme of that conference remains just as relevant today. I condensed what I learned into 5 tips to becoming an EHS leader.

The “new” high level structure for ISO 14001 & ISO 45001

Both ISO 14001:2015 and ISO 45001:2018 have been (re)framed in a new high-level structure that is to be applied to all ISO standards, to allow better integration of different management systems. In both cases there is to be clear and renewed focus on the importance of leadership.

The inclusion of words such as “context”, “leadership”, “support” and “operation”, strongly suggest that companies will need to look outwards more, both in the sense of considering external factors, but also in the sense of having a broader outlook on EHS issues in general, making it a central part of their entire business strategy. Another key revision is that “top management” will have a whole series of requirements requiring them to demonstrate an understanding of the wider business context, but also to have a grasp of the company’s internal strengths and weaknesses and how these could impact the ability to deliver their goals and commitments. It will also mean that top management will need to be closely engaged with the process of Management Review. Again, this opens up the standards and the implementation thereof to the whole company – not just those immediately responsible for EHS.

In this context, it could be argued that it is perhaps surprising that there were not more non-EHS functions present at a conference focused on leadership. EHS professionals can and do exert influence to their employees; but top management set and reflect the values across the whole organization.

This leads me to the first of the 5 main conclusions about what it takes to be an EHS leader.

1. We are all leaders

One of the panelists at a conference session recounted a story about a senior company executive he had witnessed doing a tour on the floor of one of the factories he was responsible for. On the visit in question the aforementioned gentleman refused to wear a hard-hat although it was required of everyone else. This may have seemed, on that particular occasion, on that particular site, to be a relatively minor issue, but in the context of setting the tone for workplace attitudes toward health and safety; and demonstrating positive, engaged leadership, this is a pretty incriminating example and the ramifications could be serious in the long-term. The implication being that the executive’s senior role in the management of the organization – and the value of his haircut – meant that he was above the rules that applied to everyone else. This is about as bad as it gets in terms of leadership.

The message to take away from this is clear and it is two-fold: First: obviously it is important to lead by example. Second: it is not just the EHS professionals in an organization that have this responsibility; it is everyone from the top down. It is the senior executives who set the tone for the entire organization; it is EHS executives, departmental heads and site-level managers who create the ripple of this tone through the company; and it is your employees who ultimately replicate and promote those values. In this sense everyone in an organization is a leader.

2. Knowledge is power

I have heard plenty of examples of companies where global corporate EHS managers don’t actually know how many sites they are responsible for around the world or where all their sites are located. This is often the case when a company has been on an acquisition or expansion drive. Also, in many cases, the management of EHS is decentralized to individual sites and seen as the responsibility of individual sites. In the same way, individual facilities are often expected (or worse, presumed) to be aware of and in compliance with their local legal obligations.

This obviously creates a knowledge gap. How can you lead an organization if you don’t know where your sites are or how they are performing? This, coupled with the modern challenges of social media and omnipresent cameras means that the need to get a handle on your environmental and safety performance data is more critical than ever.

There is an increasing number of incredibly powerful EHS software and management tools on the market that now enable enterprise-wide management of such information. However, the challenge remains in many cases that EHS is not a core part of a company’s wider strategy and is too often seen as an overhead, rather than an investment that will produce a concrete return. We think this is changing – the number of software applications on the market, and the incredible functionalities that they now offer, can only mean that the market is growing and more and more businesses are going down this road.

3. Risks are opportunities

Risks are often viewed as negative. However, taking such a view can limit leadership to a reactive approach. If you only see risk as negative the danger is that you will always tend to be on the back foot, where a “Quick, this needs to be fixed now!” approach could prevail.

Being aware of your risks was always and will remain an essential element of any leadership role, and there are an almost unlimited range of different types of risk you can face – but the approach to dealing with them can also be on a much more positive, pro-active footing.

For example, there are increasing restrictions on chemicals all over the world as our knowledge and testing programs catch up with reality. If you stay on top of this changing landscape and pro-actively look at safer alternatives, it could ultimately lead to cost-savings – and indeed market opportunities for your business.

In a safety context, there is a risk that a whistleblower could emerge and highlight unsafe or environmentally harmful practices at one of your locations and distribute this information to the outside world extremely quickly. In fact, in South Korea, there is a law that encourages this and whistleblowers are rewarded for alerting the authorities. But why not meet this risk head-on and put in place internal information and communication systems that involve all levels of your organization to encourage an atmosphere of transparency, collaboration and ultimately, engaged leadership.

4. Don’t stand still

It goes without saying that the world around us is constantly changing. The rapid evolution of industrial technology and scientific research and development mean that the risks your business face are also constantly shifting. New processes, new equipment and new people are all changing parts which mean that new risks are always a factor.

But while these changes pose significant challenges, they can also provide the solutions. Keeping things fresh in your organization – by applying new safety techniques and environmentally friendly technology will allow you to meet and go beyond these challenges.

Being on the forefront of technology will be essential.

5. Put EHS on par with profit

The final tip that is essential to ensuring sound EHS leadership has essentially been touched upon in all of the previous tips – and it is about making EHS and the management thereof a core business strategy that is an essential part of delivering a sustainable profitable organization to shareholders. Having a robust, pro-active and transparent approach to EHS across an organization will bring concrete results for your bottom-line, will increase shareholder value and will ultimately reduce your compliance costs.

As such, EHS needs to be addressed as more than simply an inconvenient overhead. This is something that can only be driven from the top of a company – and it should not be the responsibility of the EHS function to prove or demonstrate this.

As one Global Safety Manager put it at the conference:

“The first thing is to talk in business language, to talk to the leaders and say I can give you profitability, revenue and a lot benefits for your stakeholders in terms of reputation; and I can give you a great workforce that is motivated to come tomorrow to do the best of the best.”

The concluding message therefore from all of these 5 tips is that it will not be easy to implement them, but they will make all the difference.

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