Tag Archives: safety

Meeting Basic Health, Safety and Environmental Risk Before Sustainability- Watch Your Step

25 Aug

This week has been all about “R-I-S-K”.  Risk that my three flights around the globe to South Africa will be on time. Risk that my luggage will accompany me.  Risk that I will meet my driver.  Risk that he will be a safe driver, negotiating darkness and harrowing roads full of heavy trucks travelling between Durban and Johannesburg.  Risk that my digestive system can handle all the amazing foods I’ll sample while at the NOSA-sponsored NOSHCON 11 conference.  Risk that my talk on integrated sustainability management systems will go off without a hitch.

Risk (noun): A situation involving exposure to danger

Risk (verb): to expose to danger or loss

The Setting Tells a Story- “From Stone Age to Hard Won Democracy”

Risk.  We all live with risk and all are in position to control and influence its outcome.  This week’s conference was devoted to exploring risk in the workplace and its related effects on worker safety, health and environmental impact.  South Africa is the perfect place to explore this issue, because of all of the social, political, economic and workplace/environmental challenges that this special country has endured over the generations.  Throughout the two-day conference I have become painfully aware of the risks that exist amid the beauty of the KwaZulu Natal and Central Drakensberg region of South Africa.

View from my Guest House Looking Toward Champagne Castle

This great place of beauty has seen wars fought over land and water for thousands of years and countless generations, between indigenous tribes first, then between the Zulu and the Dutch Afrikaners, then the British and Boers and finally blacks and whites through the practice of “apartheid”.  This place has seen the likes of King Shaka, Gandhi and Mandela walking its ground.  This is historic ground where people took incredible risks to protect what they believed in, and suffered enormous costs and joyous victories.  I won’t use this space to opine on that matter just to say that issues run deep and wounds take generations to heal.  But all citizens of the Rainbow Nation are trying their very best to level the playing field.  But all along the way, all the players in this real life drama have had to manage risk.

Snakes!!

To illustrate how risk is all around us in the workplace and at home, NOSHCON brought out the snakes…yes, snakes.  Not the safe variety…I mean the pythons and puff adders.    Through a safety company called Unplugged Communications, the idea of “Snakes for Safety” was presented to a fascinated, but somewhat skittish audience of 600.  The analogy is that puff adders are like accidents waiting to happen…they hide, camouflaged in the bush and only strike when you are right on top of them.  By then the damage has been done, injury’s result (and it the case of the puff adder, you have seven minutes to call a loved one and say goodbye!).  Cobras on the other hand represent a hazard that is harmless when small, but if left unchecked, the hazards can grow to an unmanageable point when great harm can occur. Snakes.  Risk.  Managing the basics of health, safety and the environment (HSE) in developing economies like South Africa is foremost in businesses minds and correctly so.

Risk Management and Meeting Basic HSE Needs First

“There are risks and costs to every program of action.  But they are far less than the risk and costs of comfortable inaction”- John F Kennedy

Last year I wrote a two piece series on risk management and accountability in the aftermath of the BP gulf oil spill and Massey coal mining disaster.  In the second post on risk, I noted that a continuous risk management process helps organizations understand, manage, and communicate risk and avoid potential catastrophic conditions that can lead to loss of life, property and the environment. Briefly, risk management helps organizations:

  • Identify critical and non-critical risks
  • Document each risk in-depth
  • Log all risks and notify management of their severity
  • Take action to reduce the likelihood of risks occurring
  • Reduce the impact on  business, life, and the environment

In this post I laid out a typical six-step process to achieve effective risk management and failure mode control.  I also noted ”What will be … fascinating will be the lessons learned and if businesses truly embrace risk management planning and implementation as a central function of business, take it seriously and hold themselves accountable.”

Takeaways from Far Away- Sustainability May Have to Wait

The author with a less venomous snake

My talk focused on integrated management systems and how they can leverage risk and liability and support sustainability in the business marketplace.  The audience was attentive to be sure, and I listened and observed NOSHCON delegates listen to several other fantastic presentations on corporate social responsibility, carbon management and sustainability.  My impression however is that while there are pockets of excellence in sustainability focused companies, South African businesses are just beginning to think about sustainability as a value-added aspect of their businesses. Perhaps rightly so, many companies in the mining, agricultural and heavy industry sectors continue (especially the majority small to medium-sized and under-resource companies) are focusing on the basic critical issues of life safety in the workplace, education and meeting basic environmental compliance operations first.  To meet this pressing need, organizations like NOSA have developed world-class frameworks of occupational, health, safety and environmental  risk management.  And despite rampant complaints of lax enforcement of labor and environmental protection laws, the South African government has implemented its King III corporate governance policies (similar to the U.S Sarbanes-Oxley provisions) that recognize CSR and reporting obligations.

I am firmly of the belief that companies must take care of these basic HSE issues and lay a firm foundational framework for continual improvement first before they can progress along the sustainability journey.  The central themes I heard about how this can be accomplished are through increasing monitoring, education, awareness building, management accountability and trust.  Regarding sustainability, it makes little sense force feeding a business approach that has little immediate bearing on managing organizations immediate risks.  One must be able to manage the snakes; you know….one by one and step by cautious step.

Be patient South Africa.  You have such great resources, professionals hungry to learn, and have fantastic opportunities to excel in the sustainability space in the years ahead.  I have been truly blessed and humbled to have been able to participate at NOSHCON and hope to be able to hear of great things coming out of South Africa in the coming years.

“Baie Dankie”. “Ngiyabonga kakhulu”. Thanks very much!

Risky Business: Why Better Risk Management Can Protect Lives & the Environment- Part 1

3 May

As noted by Jonathan Hiskes from Grist.org the other day, in the aftermath of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, it was a hard week and month for the planet.  Hiskes remarked that there was a “confluence of terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad events, rounding up what has to be the most disheartening “Earth Month” ever, “brought to you by the fossil-fuel industry” (http://bit.ly/dgFrBa).  There is no doubt that mining of coal, deep water extraction of oil reserves in the Gulf, and even off-shore wind development have had their dark days or have met with stiff resistance.  Risky operations can have “unintended consequences”, and that is just fine so long as adequate protective measures are in place…and followed.

There are plenty of places to read more about these unfortunate and potentially devastating events.  Blame has been thrown in all directions.  I myself have been quite vocal in recent weeks about the potentially complicit nature of Massey Coals (mis) management which may have led to the unnecessary deaths of the two dozen West Virginia miners last month.  Each safety or environmental accident may in its own right be a “game changer”.  The great political sage, Daniel Schoor ( National Public Radio), in discussing the wealth of political issues facing Washington politicians this year, asked earlier in the week, “What price energy? “(On Hill, Toughest Debate Is Often What to Do First  http://n.pr/aqNR2g)   Is it forty miners and roughnecks dead, or countless soldiers protecting oil “interests” in far away wars?

There are more examples.    A slower “unintended consequence” of the housing boom (and bust) is the unchecked soil erosion from abandoned construction sites and impacted water quality.  Pick any corner of the country and there are mini-Grand Canyons popping up from on-going runoff problems at construction sites that are in foreclosure or bankruptcy. In California, where I advised on construction site soil and storm-water management, laws and protections were put in place to address these issues.  Yet enforcement and cost recovery continues to be weak and require constant vigilance and draining of already thin public resources.  States or local jurisdictions, or the banks holding the properties in foreclosure have been left to take care of these orphaned properties.

Who Loses When Risk is Not Managed?

I have no doubt that there has been a central breakdown in process risk management, commonly used by organizations to establish procedures to safely manage the greatest of uncertainties of its daily operations.  This means that if a company is going to drill a mile under the Gulf of Mexico, they should FIRST make certain that all possible failure scenarios are identified, evaluated, tested and implemented, before that first barrel of oil is extracted (see a recent guest post on Solve Climate entitled“ A Dangerous Life Miles from Land and Focused on One Thing: Black Gold”  at http://bit.ly/aC1TkK and 2003 oil industry report that warned blowout preventer problems weren’t being fixed  http://bit.ly/bEBI05). While it’s vital that 24 hour protocols be applied to day-to-day activities that may be a threat to environmental well-being, unforeseeable events involving human error or equipment failure must be managed too.

In each of the recent events, inadequate steps have been put in place to 1) evaluate “worst case” impacts associated with catastrophic failures of equipment or systems; 2) establish policies and program to mitigate short and long term environmental risk factors and 3) assure that there are financial cushions (cleanup and reclamation bonds, for instance) that continue to hold those liable before they can run or hide.

My experience with risk management suggests that organizations take four approaches for “handling” a risk:

  • Control – lower the probability of the risk event occurrence.
  • Avoid – eliminate the opportunity for the risk to occur.
  • Assume – acknowledge a future risk event & accept the potential consequences without efforts to control it.
  • Transfer – reduce the risk exposure by reallocating the risk from one part of the system to another part.

It would seem that despite BP’s, Massey’s or other company’s claims to know their own business, they employed short-sighted risk management, ignoring possible “unintended consequences”, dropping their eyes on the ball and leading to the resultant safety and environmental impacts.  I would not say this if this was a one-time situation.  But in both  company’s cases, repeated safety and environmental violations over the years (and many deadly and environmentally catastrophic  accidents) suggest just this.

Non-routine accidents or incidents in dangerous working conditions (whether a mile under a mountain or under the sea) must be thoroughly re-evaluated. Risk management processes must revisited now to further lower or eliminate worker safety and environment damages.  Anything less creates unacceptable risk.

In my next post I will describe what process risk management is all about (see below) and what organizations can do to analyze, assess and plan for that “unintended consequence”.