World Environment Day 2021 will take place on the 5th of June and marks the launch of the UN Decade on ecosystem restoration. The campaign will appropriately be supported by the hashtag #generationrestoration to rally governments, corporations, and citizens together to do their part in repairing our planet.
The stresses placed on our planet have been published and broadcasted widely over the past few years. Individuals such as Sir David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg have played pivotal roles in communicating the urgency required to make changes to the way we live and begin repairing the planet’s damaged ecosystems. According to the 2020 Annual Climate Report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) the combined land and ocean temperature has increased at an average rate of 0.13 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1880 with the average rate of increase in the last 40 years more than double that.
Changes have been made over the last decade and climate change is a key priority for governments around the world. Arguably, however, the changes required are not taking place quickly enough. With so many of the challenges needing broad political and societal support, everybody has a responsibility to make small changes to their lifestyle to bring about larger, systemic changes.
How the environment links to health and safety roles
When considering issues of this magnitude it can be difficult to appreciate the difference that we can make as individuals. Much of the media attention concerning environmental issues considers areas that many of us would never be able to influence – such as deforestation and the unsustainable use of fossil fuels. However, the average citizen in the UK spends between 35 and 40 hours a week in work, making the workplace a key environment where we can make positive changes. Our workplaces are in themselves an ecosystem that we impact on and in turn, it has an impact on our local environment.
Health and safety professionals are often tasked with improving an organisation’s environmental performance. The title of Health and Safety Manager is often adapted to EHS Manager (Environmental Health and Safety Manager), indicative that many organisations in the UK are acutely aware of their environmental responsibilities and they continually set their sights beyond the necessary standards to achieve compliance.
Understanding an ecosystem
To make a positive impact on an organisation’s ecosystem, first we must be aware of what creates an ecosystem, the benefits a positive ecosystem can afford a company and the negative impact that can be experienced if they are not maintained correctly.
The word ecosystem is used to describe the functional relationship between living organisms (plants/animals/people) with the non-living environment in which they reside. This includes both natural environments and man-made habitats such as cities and farms. Ecosystems provide benefits to people that can be broken down into four categories.
- Provisions – describing a physical resource that sustains life for example food and water, building materials and fuels.
- Regulation – these are the benefits that are obtained from an ecosystem due to the control it has over certain processes such as breathable air and mitigation of disease or natural disasters.
- Cultural – these are tangible lifestyle benefits that our ecosystem provides such as the ability to conduct recreational activities and the positive impact our environment has on our mental wellbeing.
- Supporting – the supporting factors are necessary to enable the provision of all of the aforementioned benefits and include photosynthesis as well as nutrient and water cycling.
How an ecosystem impacts an organisation
An organisation’s success is no longer only determined by its financial performance. A Healthy and Sustainable Living study conducted by GlobeScan in 2020 confirmed that globally younger generations (particularly Gen Z), were more likely to feel ashamed often or very often because of living lifestyles that were not environmentally friendly compared to older demographics. As these more ecologically aware generations enter the workforce and become the primary consumers, greater scrutiny will be placed on an organisation’s environmental impact.
Furthermore, a damaged ecosystem can lead to the depletion of provisions that organisations rely on. As resources become scarcer, the cost of acquiring them may increasingly impact the financial performance of an organisation. Acquiring resources that have limited availability could also lead to disputes between organisations, resulting in production downtime and cost implications.
The unpredictability of our weather patterns, too, may lead to damaged property and infrastructure, in turn increasing insurance premiums. Notably, in July 2019, the UK was subject to severe storms due to a dramatic heatwave. The country was hit by 45,000 lightning strikes in one night, followed by widespread flooding. The floods of 2015-16 cost the UK economy approximately £1.6 billion, and is set to increase substantially (UK gov, 2021).
Perhaps more importantly though will be the risks to businesses that occur as society attempts to mitigate the impact of climate change. Technology evolution, tighter regulation and market change may all impact product services or delivery, may render other businesses obsolete, or drastically impact how we both work and consume. Failing to identify these or consider mitigation methods (whether large or small) could have very significant impacts in the future.
An organisation’s internal and external stakeholders are increasingly aware of these implications. They are beginning to expect greater corporate transparency when it comes to environmental and sustainability issues, and accordingly, organisations will be subject to increased pressure to reduce their environmental impact.
Environmental factors that you may consider as a health and safety manager
There are numerous ways in which a Health and Safety Manager may be able to assist with an organisation’s environmental considerations in collaboration with other business functions such as procurement and quality assurance.
Some of these methods apply to how a business operates such as monitoring the organisation’s energy and water usage and the waste that is produced. The overall carbon footprint of an organisation can be mapped, and this can highlight opportunities to decrease air emissions. Waste is an unfortunate side effect of many human activities, however, if waste is managed correctly, the impact that it has on our ecosystem can be greatly reduced. An organisation may consider the development of waste management programs for recycling, water treatment and disposal of hazardous substances where appropriate. Particularly in production workspaces, it can be possible to incentivise the reduction of waste, as ultimately, reducing waste has a positive impact on the organisation’s financial performance. Once these solutions are in place, the next step would be to analyse the sustainability of the other external stakeholders in your supply chain.
Many organisations in the UK, particularly those who don’t operate in production environments, don’t have a large carbon footprint or substantial amounts of waste to manage. there are still opportunities to make a difference to our ecosystem by making smaller and more personal lifestyle choices.
- Employees can be encouraged to commute to work in a more environmentally conscious way with the use of cycle to work, car sharing and park and ride schemes.
- Engage employees with the topic of environmental health. Normalising discussions around environmental improvement could encourage individuals to find creative solutions themselves, and often results in more sustainable long term behaviour change.
- Understand your supply chain. Having a well-informed idea of how your suppliers operate and manufacture is imperative to understanding how business may be impacted by climate change. For employees who may have limited decision-making powers in an organisation, simply seeking to understand the environmental impact of products or services delivered may be influential in developing a pro-environmental culture.
- Be transparent about how the risks of climate change may impact business operation. How would an increase in flooding, for instance, change business critical processes?
- Educate employees on consumption choices through internal communication. Reducing unnecessary consumption has a significant impact on both an organisation and personal carbon footprint and can help individuals make more pro-environmental choices.
- Consider working spaces carefully. Encourage employees to utilise their lunch breaks away from their desks and spend time outdoors. Research has found that frequent breaks spent outdoors significantly increases pro-environmental behaviours (among other benefits!). Equally, considerations around natural lighting and employee thermal comfort can drastically reduce energy consumption and avoid the need for artificial air conditioning.
While not exhaustive, these suggestions may help to build a culture of trust, transparency, and accountability necessary to ensure that organisations have a positive impact on climate change.
As environment conscientiousness becomes even more ingrained in our lifestyle’s organisations will likely need to demonstrate a culture that incorporates these values to ensure long-term investment, financial stability, and business integrity.
Comment on our social media post linked to this article and let us know if you feel that environmental issues require more exposure in current health and safety education.