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September 24, 2009

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Environmental management- Dual purpose

These days, many health and safety professionals also enjoy working actively in the environmental field, and are able to meet the challenges that both disciplines offer. However, not all practitioners see the benefits of combining the two, so James Draper suggests practical tips for those who, by choice or selection, are responsible for environmental management.

The integration of environmental management into the role of health and safety practitioners has gathered pace in recent years. You only have to look at the jobs section of SHP and the like to see how many of the employers are advertising for health, safety and environment managers, SHE directors, compliance managers, and corporate social responsibility advisors.

Many health and safety practitioners do have the skills and the will to take on environmental tasks and responsibilities but some, understandably, view it as a ‘bolt-on’ to their traditional job specification, and an extra burden in what is already a very busy role. But in the same way that good health and safety management is good for business, so too can good environmental practice benefit the bottom line.1

Upskilling

The skills needed to apply principles of environmental management are arguably the same as those required to perform health and safety duties: a balanced combination of knowledge — typically through qualifications — and experience. Although previous experience in environmental issues helps, skills can be developed through day-to-day application, while qualifications can be gained via appropriate academic or professional training courses, of which there is a wide range.

Like health and safety, environmental management embraces a range of disciplines, including science, law, engineering, economics and management. Although some health and safety practitioners may have concerns about the scientific and legal aspects of environmental management, it really isn’t necessary to be a scientist, lawyer, etc. to apply these principles effectively. That being said, basic training in environmental law is crucial. It is a complex area, to say the least, and is constantly changing and evolving to embrace modern-day environmental concerns.

In terms of management systems, health and safety practitioners are commonly trained in the implementation and auditing of ISO 14001,2 or integrated management systems,3 but this alone is not sufficient to claim true knowledge of the topic.

Of equal importance is a good knowledge of the environmental interactions on your own site, or within your organisation. For example, being able to understand and register environmental aspects — those elements of an organisation’s activities, products and/or services that can interact with the environment — is extremely valuable, as is a thorough knowledge of pollution pathways that exist on sites. These tools are simple and quick to implement, and support health and safety practitioners in improving their environmental knowledge.

Remember, too, that interest in environmental issues is generally high, so there are likely to be other people, resources and systems in your organisation that can be harnessed and effectively used. For example, green teams can be set up to debate and discuss environmental concerns and appropriate controls. Gauging interest and combining expertise in environmental management will help support and bridge any skills gaps that may exist.

Where there’s a will

So, having the appropriate knowledge and skills to do a particular job are obviously important, but equally necessary are an interest in and commitment to doing it. Some practitioners rightly feel they have enough to do just to manage their health and safety duties, and that adding another discipline into the mix will inevitably lead to compromise.

This is particularly a problem where there is only one point of contact for health, safety and environmental issues on site and, in these straitened times, when resources are stretched to the limit, it is quite common for one person to be tasked with keeping all three balls in the air.

While it is fairly easy and, in many cases, logical to fit environmental management into other areas of business compliance the person tasked with the role must be provided with a clear remit, as well as the relevant training and resources to fulfil it.

Commitment from the organisation’s leadership is also key. Some organisations see environmental management as a purely commercial exercise and, apart from a commitment to achieving an environmental management system, there is little support for environmental initiatives. This can make practitioners develop a “why should I bother?” attitude towards the topic.

There is still a great deal of scepticism surrounding many environmental concepts, and evidence abounds of ambitious projects that were launched in a blaze of glory but soon fizzled out when they failed to produced the desired results.4

Which leads me on to another perceived problem with environmental initiatives: they usually take time to produce results. These days, much emphasis is placed on the achievement of immediate and noticeable outcomes, but the benefits of successful environmental management develop over time and require sustained support.

Awkward and overcomplicated legislation and practices can also negatively impact a health and safety professional’s willingness to take on environmental responsibilities. A good example of this is the confusion that still surrounds the completion of packaging returns, and the recently introduced regulations on recycling electrical and electronic equipment.5 These are new and evolving concerns, whereas most health and safety issues have been around for years, and practitioners can call on a wealth of information sources, best-practice examples, etc. to help them.

Finally, there is still a stigma attached to any environmental job and career, with many misguided people persisting in the belief that those who have followed this path must all be ‘tree-huggers’ or ‘hippies’!6 Of course, health and safety professionals are no strangers to unfair labels but such narrow views can influence willingness to truly embrace this subject area.

Conclusion

I have briefly examined the reasons why some health and safety practitioners feel they lack the skill or the will to take on environmental management. I am empathetic to these views but believe that if you’ve got the badge, then you should wear it properly. The tips I have suggested to help achieve this don’t all involve significant costs or time (both of which are in short supply in the current economic climate). They involve both on and off-site investigations and can be easily adapted to fit alongside a person’s existing health and safety responsibilities.

Whether health and safety practitioners like it or not, the environment is here to stay. In fact, it is a growing area, with new issues appearing on the environmental agenda each year. It is highly likely that in times of recession, more and more practitioners will be given environmental responsibilities, and the role of the pure health and safety professional will be further diluted.  
 
References
1    See, for example, Quantification of the business benefits of resource efficiency, prepared for Defra by Oakdene Hollins and Grant Thornton, October 2007
2    ISO14001: 2004: International Standard for Environmental Management Systems
3    For example: BSI PAS (Publicly Available Specification) Integrated Management System, combining quality, safety and the environment
4    ‘BA green scheme fails to take off’ — BBC News report published 2007/03/13
5    LetsRecycle.com: ‘Evidence of concerns as WEEE Regulations are amended’, posted 14 Dec 2007
6    The Times Union: ‘Green Jobs and the Bottom Line’, by Larry Rulison, March 2009

James Draper is a principal consultant with Aviva Risk Management Solutions.

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