Bernd Freibott: Looking back on 11 years of ASSE (American Society of Safety Engineers) activities in Kuwait and even more years of activity in the Middle East region with the Middle East Chapter of the ASSE, how do you perceive the progress of EHS (Environment, Health, and Safety) and sustainability in general in this part of the world?
Kathy Seabrook: In the Middle East right now, there is so much progress taking place with respect to workplace health and safety. During my research, I found that the major oil and gas companies Equate and Kuwait Oil Company (KOC) in Kuwait are reporting on their sustainability performance, even though they are not public companies, have no shareholders, and do not have to comply with legislative requirements. They want to create visibility internationally. This creates transparency and articulates their sustainability performance to other stakeholders. In terms of workplace health and safety, there is a real movement towards management systems. From conversations with the CEO of Equate and deputy CEO of KOC, these organizations are working on continual improvement with sound safety management systems. They recognize the risk of incidents and are incorporating recognized global best practices, with a risk-based approach, and see EHS management systems as the right way to go.
Growing awareness of health and safety in the Middle East
Bernd: Right now, we are seeing growth in activity and awareness for occupational health and service in the Middle East, and lately, ASSE and the IOSH are becoming even more active, for example in Abu Dhabi. Can we expect these developments to grow in momentum, leading to more opportunities for EHS professionals and solutions in Gulf countries?
Kathy: Absolutely. The reason for this growth in awareness is that the Middle East is now on the world stage, meaning there’s a real need to perform well in workplace health and safety and sustainability. Not doing so can also risk damaging your reputation. When a health and safety issue arises, it is communicated around the world virtually in 60 seconds. Think news media, BBC, CNN, Twitter, and Facebook. So reputation is also a driver for this.
Bernd: Kathy, we met for the first time in 2010 as members of an ASSE delegation to China, and I hear you have just got back again from China and Taiwan. People outside of China have the impression that the country doesn’t perform well in terms of work safety, that working conditions are poor and fatality rates high, especially in mining. Four years after our first visit in 2010, how would you assess the overall state of EHS and especially of occupational health and safety in China and how would you describe the progress and the outlook for the country.
Kathy: ASSE was invited to meet with the Chinese Occupational Safety and Health Association (COSHA) delegation in Beijing, China. The leader of COSHA was looking to work with ASSE on knowledge transfer and sharing best practices to improve safety in China. China is also on the world stage, and according to COSHA, health, safety, and the environment are key issues for the Chinese government. ASSE also had the opportunity to meet with 45 safety professionals in Shanghai. These safety professionals, who work mainly for non-Chinese multinational companies, were very progressive and shared best practices during the day-long meeting. Honeywell Shanghai sponsored the meeting and there were speakers from Disney, ESIS, Honeywell, and ASSE. What we learned was very positive. The Shanghai safety professionals are very knowledgeable about best practices in health and safety, and the meeting focused on sustainability, business alignment, business culture that integrates safety, and worker engagement.
Developments in EHS and sustainability in Europe and North America
Bernd: Coming back to North America and Europe – and I know you also have very good insights of the situation in the UK: How would you describe the situation of occupational health and safety in those regions, and what major developments or tendencies do you see for EHS and sustainability in general?
Kathy: Europe has driven, and continues to drive, sustainability around the world. It is also a leader in management systems. On the sustainability front, we are seeing a move towards integrated reporting. This means companies providing annual reports that include both financial as well as sustainability performance. Some European companies are looking at making this a legal requirement in the future. Again this is pushed by Europe. Europe continues to drive a management system, holistic approach to managing EHS. An example for this can be seen in packaging regulations that require the assessment and management of the packaging’s environmental impact, from the cradle to the grave.
Bernd: Would you share the view that the culture of advanced safety and behavioral-based safety management is a concept no longer restricted to experts? And that this concept will, on the one hand, become more and more a part of the sustainable business model of a corporation, while on the other, all individuals of a company – from management to shop floor workers – will move towards playing an active role in such a setup?
Kathy: It’s all about business alignment. Professionals are becoming partners and collaborators with their business counterparts. The focus for EHS in the business community is moving toward the integration of EHS with the business, leadership engagement and employee participation. This is essential for organizations to identify and manage their risks and impacts to the business. Risk is the language of business, managing risk to the business is what everyone in a leadership position understands. They also understand that one their most valuable assets is their employees.
Occupational safety part of environmental, health, and safety management
Bernd: Traditionally, the ASSE and most safety practitioners have this strong background in occupational health and safety. But would you agree that we are now in a world where occupational safety is more and more an integral part of holistic environmental, health, and safety management, and this is then summarized again within the overall context of the sustainability agenda?
Kathy: According to the performance indicators in the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), workplace health and safety is a defined indicator of sustainability performance. Professionals whose organizations are aligned with sustainability will find the concepts of business alignment to be much easier, because they will be aligning their EHS initiatives with the business culture, strategies, and goals. They will also be speaking the language of risk with their stakeholders, communicating a risk-based approach to managing strategic risks to their business leaders.
Bernd: As head of the Sustainability Services Hub of SAP, I have to ask you this question: How do you consider the role of EHS and Sustainability Solution providers for the future of the business area?
Kathy: Every organization has a role to play in furthering sustainability. It’s about integration and business alignment, where technology such as SAP plays a significant role.
Bernd: If you could create a wish-list for sustainability solution providers, what tools or features would you like to see to help and enable safety professionals with the challenges of the future?
Kathy: As mentioned before, integration tools and solutions tie the business and business management systems together. This includes performance data from the financial, human resources, engineering design, change management, and operational functions. These KPIs provide the leadership – the decision-makers in the organization – with the information needed to understand and manage the impact on their sustainability performance, business performance, their reputation, and their employees.
Level of understanding among business leaders, NGOs, and employees
Bernd: Any final thoughts about the future?
The future is very bright for the profession. The level of understanding of workplace health and safety is on the rise around the world. This includes business leaders, their organizations, the investment community, NGOs, and employees. Business alignment with safety is the key to this future. It is all about changing the culture of organizations, and EHS professionals have a significant role to play, no matter where they are located around the world.
Bernd: Thank you very much for your time and the interesting discussion.
Next page: More about ASSE
About the American Society of Safety Engineers
ASSE: Founded in 1911, the Des Plaines, IL-based ASSE is the largest and oldest professional safety society and is committed to protecting people, property, and the environment. Its more than 35,000 occupational safety, health, and environmental professional members lead, manage, supervise, research, and consult on safety, health, transportation, and environmental issues in all industries, government, labor, health care, and education. For more information, please go to www.asse.org.