By Grainger Editorial Staff 3/22/23
Workplace safety is not static. From the primitive steps borne out of the Industrial Revolution to the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act, and on through to today’s technology-driven, pandemic-affected workplaces, the approach to helping workers get home safely each day keeps evolving.
This reality was the foundation for The Future of EHS, a re-imagined conference in early 2023 hosted by the National Safety Council (NSC). The NSC is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving safety in workplaces and on roads and addressing impairment that can impact each of those. Experts in environmental health and safety (EHS) gathered to discuss emerging topics in the field with a keen focus on a holistic view of workplace safety.
Two Grainger safety leaders – Travis Kruse, PhD, CSP, CHMM, Senior Director of Safety & Sustainability Solutions Strategy; and Bob Balderson, CSP, Senior Manager of Safety – attended the conference and shared some key takeaways from the event, one that was unique in the occupational safety space.
“We’re not just discussing challenges such as slips, trips and falls, or only talking about the topics that have been covered so vastly in the past with respect to safety compliance – and those are all still important topics,” Balderson said. “But at events like this, we’re learning more on not only the way EHS challenges have been managed in the past, but more on how organizations are going to lead EHS in the future.”
Helping protect workers from direct physical harm will always be central to EHS, but the conference underscored the growing role psychosocial elements play in workplace safety. Sessions touched on topics such as diversity, equity and inclusion; human-centric design; adapting to a millennial-dominated workforce; and the psychosocial factors associated with preventing musculoskeletal disorders.
Kruse noted that underpinning many of these discussions is the “wild card” of understanding the emotions and burdens that workers carry into the workplace from their personal lives, issues which could affect their occupational decision-making. One of the evolving approaches to addressing this is human and organizational performance, an operational philosophy that accepts human workers as naturally imperfect, but also highly capable of adapting and improving in the proper environment.
“You want to make sure that the employees and your workforce and even your contractors who are showing up to work each and every day are coming with the right attitude and the right mindset to be successful,” he said. “So, there's a lot of discussion around how to control for that, and at the end of the day, it's human and organizational performance. How do you make sure that the human element is taken into consideration when interacting in the workplace?”
Environmental, social and governance (ESG) efforts continue to attract more attention from investors, executives, suppliers and consumers. Though at first glance it may share little with the concept of workplace safety, there is quite a bit of overlap. Workplace safety is a tenet of the “Social” aspect of ESG, while environmental compliance – the “E” – is a topic very familiar to EHS professionals.
Kruse said there was quite a bit of discussion at the conference about managing the overlap between the two.
“Environmental health and safety professions have been dealing with environmental compliance for a very long time, and they have systems already in place,” he said. “So how do organizations work in cahoots with the owners of ESG? And perhaps it is the EHS who owns ESG in certain organizations, but that's not always the case.
“How do we make sure that we're not duplicating efforts and we’re managing it in a systematic way to achieve those predictable or anticipated results that businesses want? How do you get smart with managing the various aspects of each and not developing duplicative systems?”
Many technological advances of the fourth industrial revolution can impact workplace safety, from automation of dangerous tasks to the use of wearables that can track health and location data, among many other things. Companies operate all along the spectrum of technological maturity
“A lot of organizations are continuing to move off Excel spreadsheets or paper to perform things like inspections, which is fairly rudimentary, to something as sophisticated as wearable devices that come with technology like geofencing that prevents certain individuals from entering certain areas,” Kruse said. “So, there's technology out there for every aspect of environmental health and safety at this point. And really the context of the discussion at the NSC conference was around, how is your organization ready, how do you go through the decision-making process to invest in technology?”
One of those considerations, especially relating to wearables, is employees’ concern about management perpetually tracking them through those devices. It relates to psychological safety, which connects to that concept of total worker wellness. Balderson said a culture of established trust, especially at the site level, is critical to that success.
“It's a lot of collaboration and conversation explaining exactly what the ‘why’ is behind the reason for that type of technology being selected, the type of system implementation and what it's going to do to benefit both the employee and the organization,” he said.
A second consideration is how best to use the data collected from the technology such as sensors and wearable devices. It’s partly a technical question, as organizations need to find the right technology provider that helps them gather the right information and synthesize it in a manner consistent with their organizational language.
“For example, when you think about technology such as an ergonomic wearable where you're getting data that indicates a person may be at risk based on the type of lifting or a type of body movement, that is data that could suggest a coaching opportunity, could be a training opportunity, could be a workstation engineering opportunity,” Balderson said. “So, now you have real data available to analyze and help make smart decisions to ensure the right actions take place for that work task or workstation to set that person up to safely succeed.”
To learn more about how your organization can keep up with emerging EHS trends, visit Grainger.com.
The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.