Ergonomics done right.®
October 27th, 2008

The Key to Sustainability is in the Process

Last week, we attended the National Association of EHS Managers (NAEM) Forum in Memphis. NAEM has recently expanded their focus beyond environmental to include health and safety as well.

NAEM has also recently launched a new blog, The Green Tie. In a recent post, Frank Brandauer comments on the rise of the word "sustainable" and asks EHS managers to explore how sustainable their company’s EHS programs really are.

We think his points are spot on and give rise to some additional thoughts:

Sustainability vs. sustainability. Today in Environmental Management, the term Sustainability is commonly used within the profession to denote the environmental aspects of an organization and their impact on business, product and energy (as Frank points out). This is a significant evolution in Environmental Management since it’s formal introduction via the formation of the EPA. In the early days, environmental programs focused on compliance. Today it is a critical component of a business.

On the other hand, EHS managers, safety managers and many program/process managers use the term "sustainability" (small "s") to describe and promote the ongoing managment and results of their program/process. In my early days of EHS management (early 80’s) we were in the "Comply or Die" mode when the fear of being cited drove deployment. Unfortunately, many initiatives were rolled out without planned maintenance or sponsorship. The resulting cycle of initial fanfare, deployment, then fading resulted in EHS programs being referred to as "the flavor of the month" (along with HR, Quality, and Production initiatives, maybe all initiatives for that matter).

Today, with the prevalence of Continuous Improvement, Toyota Production System, and TMP, we are a lot smarter. EHS managers’ focus to maintain compliance continues, as it is the foundation of any EHS program. However, savvy managers and professionals know that these programs must be managed as a process (on-going, owned by many) not as programs (event driven, owned by the EHS department). Aligning EHS programs with the familiar process used for continuous improvement and leveraging other functions and departments are two key elements for success and sustainability.

Sustainability with a small "s" means the program is:

  • managed as a process
  • owned by many
  • on-going despite personnel and business initiative changes
  • measured using proactive metrics
  • valued by top management.

At Humantech, many of our client partners have evolved their ergonomics program from a list of elements (ex. the OSHA Meatpacking Guidelines) to an Ergonomic Improvement Process or Ergonomic Management System. As with any rollout, there is a need to invest a level of resources to launch the process and maintain momentum. However, once the process is deployed, people are confident and capable in their respective roles, and management understands, monitors and tracks progress, then the level of resources drops off while the value continues to rise.

Frank’s rhetorical question, ‘is your program prepared for sustainability during tough economic times’, is one that every EHS manager should consider. Our experience is that established and effective ergonomic improvement processes survive tough economic times and these lessons can surely be applied to all aspects of your EHS program.