How EHS Professionals Make a Difference

At various times, the expectations of leadership overwhelm us all, but especially those who are responsible for managing EHS and the day-to-day challenges presented in their role. Occasionally we become frustrated when we are trying to change a culture or tackle a problem. The temptation is to throw up our hands and blame management for our inability to effect change. All of us, no matter our experience, have fallen into this trap.

Leaders show their strength by how they manage in tough times. COVID-19 has provided EHS leaders with the opportunity to demonstrate the importance of the profession and to work collaboratively with our organizations. EHS leaders are relied upon to provide guidance and employee training on face coverings, social distancing, hand and cough hygiene, cleaning and disinfection, and the creation of plans to return to work safely. These preventive measures are recognized as valuable to the organization.  A cornerstone of EHS has always been the implementation of preventive measures, from risk assessments to training and communication. These measures, if effective, go unrecognized. But EHS professionals can and do drive change and add value to their organizations. Here’s how we do it: 
Leading by influence.
Our title or level in the organization does not guarantee respect. We have to earn it. EHS professionals must develop trust at all levels of the organization and must often influence change without authority. This requires us to understand the business, listen well, recognize what’s important, and always follow up. We must be honest and acknowledge when we don’t know something. Never guess or give an off-the-cuff answer: it is perfectly acceptable to say, “I don’t know, but I will get back to you.” We must seek to understand why a question is being asked and to recognize that what isn’t being said may be more important than what is being said. 
Leading by example.
EHS professionals are responsible for establishing safety rules, training employees, and selecting and establishing the personal protective equipment requirements. These responsibilities affect how employees work and are critical to their safety. But if we expect an employee to follow the rules, we must follow the rules too and hold everyone in the organization accountable, including the CEO, customers, visitors, and all employees. Nothing torpedoes our efforts more than when site leaders or visitors are observed not following the rules. If steel-toed shoes are required in an area, then everyone entering that area must be wearing steel-toed shoes—no exceptions.  Furthermore, our role as leaders requires that we model behaviors that build trust. Effective EHS leaders are good listeners, show genuine concern for employees, solicit feedback from peers, and inspire people to act safely. 
Sending a consistent message.
Our message must reflect a passion for EHS. It must communicate support for workers and dedication to ensuring they remain healthy and know how to do their job safely. And it must convey our commitment to minimizing the organization’s impact on the environment. That’s a complex message, and if we put it into words, we risk losing our audience. The bottom line is that everything we do must support that message.  We must be empathetic and honest with employees. Demonstrating these behaviors builds trust and allows us to exert influence without authority. 
is director, ESH&S, at ITT Control and Connect Technologies in Irvine, California. Send feedback to The Synergist.

Our role as leaders requires that we model behaviors that build trust. 
Understanding the balance between production, safety, and quality.
We have all been told, “Safety is our number-one priority.” Safety should be a core value. Values are held over the long term and generally do not change.  While there will always be a balancing act between safety and productivity, this doesn’t mean that the two are mutually exclusive. Our role as EHS professionals is to identify opportunities to win on both fronts. For example, ergonomic improvements can and do increase productivity. Designing an assembly line that incorporates good ergonomics will optimize production and improve safety. Soliciting employee feedback through safety observations can and does result in both safety improvements and productivity changes. In my experience, those closest to a safety problem are most often best suited to provide meaningful feedback. Some of our best environmental improvements have come from employees working in accounting. Safety is not just the responsibility of EHS leaders. 
Having intimate knowledge of the processes and risk in our operations.
We must understand how work is done at our organizations. In manufacturing, many processes present risks to employees and to the environment. As EHS professionals, we must understand how products are assembled, chemicals are used, raw materials are managed, and waste is disposed of. We must know the workplace layout for all departments, including those for support functions. We should be able to walk all departments in our heads with the intention of understanding the associated risks. This knowledge allows us to evaluate the total occupational environment. The risks identified need to be ranked, and our focus must be on reducing risk to an acceptable level. This is different than achieving zero risk. Priority must be given to low-probability but high-consequence risks.  A common question asked of EHS professionals is, “What keeps you up at night?” My answer is employees who do not believe they are at risk of injury. Written job safety analyses, EHS training programs, visual safety posters, newsletters, written programs, and compliance audits may not convince employees that they are at risk of harm.  A perfect example is the public’s reaction to the six-foot social-distancing guidance recommended to minimize exposure to the COVID-19 virus. Media have published pictures of large crowds at the beach when “safer at home” declarations are in place. Even after several weeks, people were still violating this safe practice while exposed to strangers. 
Translating complex rules and regulations.
EHS professionals need to know how to break down complex rules and regulations into the issue at hand, the proposed solution, and what our audience needs to do. Senior leaders want to know why they should be involved, what needs to be done, and where they can help. EHS professionals need to comprehensively understand the regulation, but our audience does not. Our deeper understanding allows us to respond with confidence if more information is required. 
Identifying gaps and driving continuous improvement.
It is quite easy to be dragged down by the tactical aspects of our role. Entering data into a software system, training employees, attending meetings, and responding to emails and voicemails can be overwhelming. We must allow ourselves time to step back and look at the big picture. Are accident trends, employee observations, equipment breakdowns, or organizational changes (layoffs, hiring surge, leadership changes) affecting performance? EHS professionals must use our experience and intuition to scan the environment and recognize gaps in performance. We must solicit feedback from workers and supervisors to help identify gaps. Steps taken to close gaps will drive continuous improvement only if the corrective actions are sustainable. 
Surveilling the EHS environment.
Most EHS professionals are lifetime learners. Learning does not require attendance at a professional conference. We can learn by reading, observing, and developing a network of EHS peers. The COVID-19 virus has forced us to keep abreast of guidance from CDC, the World Health Organization, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, and the National Institutes of Health.  We should never lose sight of the fact that EHS professionals add value by creating a safe and healthful workplace and protecting the environment. We can and do make a difference.