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Building on a Culture of Safety Leadership to Drive Environmental Performance

george, bruce, dupont sustainable solutionsSafety is often included among core values for companies today, and creating a strong safety culture is typically central to the pursuit of operational excellence. Why then, does environmental management not get the same level of attention?  Perhaps there is a lack of recognition that the behaviors that underpin safety excellence are not unique to building a safety culture.

In fact, the elements used to build an uncompromising commitment to safety also can be used, along with a robust environmental management system framework, to continuously improve environmental performance.  Doing so also creates a solid organizational foundation for the integration of safety and environmental management, by promoting the same performance-enhancing behaviors in leadership and operating personnel working in both areas.

Shifting an organization’s culture toward one in which leadership and employees believe that all injuries are preventable begins with a change from focusing on compliance to focusing on values and beliefs.  Leadership drives and reinforces an organization’s values through behaviors and attitudes, as well as the systems, processes and tools that lead to performance that is “beyond compliance” with legal and regulatory requirements.  This approach can take an organization beyond acceptance that “environmental incidents will happen,” to an operating model where exceptional environmental performance is an essential part of doing business.

What are some of the behavioral elements that drive this cultural shift, and how are they commonly exhibited in achieving improvement for either safety or environmental performance?  Among the most critical elements to affecting cultural change are those that comprise visible and strong leadership.  Just as with safety, leaders need to demonstrate their commitment to environmental performance through their expectations and actions.  They need to express the organization’s beliefs and values related to environmental performance through clear and meaningful environmental policies and procedures.  They should identify challenging goals and objectives to define the company’s expectations for environmental performance. And they should demonstrate the high standards of performance for meeting those objectives.

A key driver of safety performance is line management’s commitment to be accountable for driving change and realizing the expected outcomes.  The same holds true for strong environmental performance. Even meeting compliance requirements can be challenging without the line organization’s rigorous attention to its role as an environmental steward and for identifying opportunities for improvement.  As with safety, staff functions assigned to provide support to line organizations in managing environmental aspects need to be capable and engaged.  An integrated organizational structure, with representation across functions and levels, is important to driving safety performance.  Again, the same holds true for environmental management.  Improvements in performance cannot be driven by isolated environmental or sustainability departments.  Performance measurement and motivation also play a critical role.  Employees should understand that there are clear expectations for following environmental policies and procedures, and clear consequences for failing to do so.

Finally, environmental performance can benefit from behaviors inherent in the use of focused processes, actions, and tools used to drive enhanced safety performance.  Frequent, effective, and reciprocal communication about objectives, performance, incidents, and learnings are critical to building a high-performing safety culture.  The same holds true for raising awareness and engaging the organization in improving environmental performance.  Targeted training and development for enhancing leaders’ skills and increasing employee knowledge are just as important for nurturing environmental awareness as they are for safety.  The same rigorous approaches applied to safety observations, incident investigations, corrective actions, and communicating learnings can be employed with equal effect for environmental incidents.

For many businesses, driving improvements in environmental management begins with the implementation of an environmental management system (EMS) that is in compliance with a standard such as ISO 14001.  The ISO standard in particular provides a good foundation for developing an effective management system, and the standard includes in its structure a framework for incorporating most of the behavioral elements described above.  Some might argue that this approach is sufficient to improve a company’s environmental performance, and that drawing parallels to the elements of a strong safety culture is unnecessary or superfluous.  But in isolation, an EMS does not provide specific requirements for environmental performance, nor does it identify or prescribe specific behaviors for the organization in using the EMS.  An organization can easily revert to a state of complacency and adopt a “box ticking” mentality once it achieves compliance with an EMS standard, and then wonder why it continues to experience difficulties in achieving the environmental and business performance expected.  At DuPont Sustainable Solutions, we’ve learned that success lies in the execution of the processes – the way an organization works or behaves on a daily basis – and is the key to driving performance.  And the performance-enhancing behaviors that DuPont employs to continuously improve safety results are the same it employs to drive its environmental performance.

A set of performance-enhancing behaviors can become a powerful foundation for a common approach to safety and environmental management.  It is not unusual for a company to place the responsibilities for safety and environmental management into a combined “Safety, Health and Environment” organization, and yet to set different priorities for and varying approaches to the management of each area.  Alternatively, the underlying cultural behaviors common to improving both safety and environmental performance provide the basis for truly integrating the management of safety and environment.  These behavioral elements become the heart of an integration framework based on shared cultural traits.  If environmental performance is as much a business priority as managing safety, why not approach both with the same level of commitment?

Bruce George is global solutions architect, environmental practice, with DuPont Sustainable Solutions.

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