EHS Managers: The Evolution from Necessary Evil to Vital Leaders

Aug 31st, 2014 | By | Category: Environmental Management, Health and Safety

EHS Journal - Spectral Lights by Marie Jeanne Iliescu

Considering the dedication most companies now have to environmental, health, and safety (EHS) compliance and the extra sustainability initiatives they pursue, it’s hard to imagine a time when businesses treated such matters as burdensome obligations. But such a time existed not long ago; so recently, in fact, that many EHS managers can recall it with clarity and maybe not-so-fond memories.

Many businesses and their compliance officers were ill-equipped to contend with increased federal environmental and safety oversight starting in the ‘70s. Making matters more difficult, firms often viewed EHS as an afterthought, forcing managers to fight to convey their value to the business and their importance as risk mitigators and operations innovators. Furthermore, the fledgling EHS field was a volatile one, with companies quickly increasing and reducing EHS staff based on the latest enforcement actions or lack thereof.


Regulatory Growth

For an example of the sometimes overwhelming burden placed on EHS managers, recent regulatory activity undertaken by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) serves as a reminder. Since 1994, the EPA has published more than 40,000 items. Comparably, the Department of Agriculture published approximately 25,000; the Department of Labor, 21,000; and the Department of Justice, 18,000.

EHS managers are not only pressed to deal with regulations appearing in greater frequency and depth, but must do so knowing enforcement efforts are more rigid and penalties are stiffer than previously. In fiscal year 2012, the EPA levied $252 million in civil and criminal penalties against noncompliant businesses. In FY 2011, that total was $187 million, and in FY 2010, $148 million.

That trend toward enhanced regulatory oversight and stricter enforcement is also present in the area overseen by the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). According to OSHA’s most recent inspections data for FY 2010, there was a 6.2 percent increase in the number of inspections since FY 2006; there was also a 15.3 percent increase in the total number of violations and a 22.1 percent rise in serious violations. OSHA’s target to reign-in serious violators has even spawned the Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP), created in 2010.


EHS Compliance and Company Culture

EHS professionals have a lot on their plate: staying aware of new regulations, understanding and interpreting requirements, applying those standards to operations, and enforcing them at the worksite. In addition to assuming all those responsibilities, they are often tasked with influencing company culture. The emphasis on corporate sustainability may come down from on high, but EHS managers are on the frontlines of the battle, charged with shifting perspectives and recruiting believers with real-life results. They have become the leaders of the workplace safety movement with rallying cries like “Safety First” or “Our Goal… Zero Harm.”

Environmental strategies have also been pushed to EHS managers in an effort to green up their companies. In the National Association for Environmental Management (NAEM) 2012 EHS and Sustainability benchmarking report, setting environmental goals was cited as the most common responsibility, ahead of compliance. This shift suggests that EHS professionals are now tasked with not only managing environmental related compliance issues, but also proactively managing environmental strategies.

The same NAEM benchmarking report echoed that sentiment — that EHS managers are increasingly assuming more responsibility for the future environmental and social performance of their employer. Respondents said they were taking the lead on everything from energy management to natural resource conservation efforts to marketing corporate sustainability.


EHS Managers are Still Underfunded

Even given the crucial role EHS managers play in a business’ operations, they are still faced with a barrage of external and internal forces that complicate their job. Not only that, but they are often left shortchanged by budget constraints that leave them with insufficient resources, personnel, and compliance tools.

In a 2013 report on the state of the EHS profession, GreenBiz found that after business spending on sustainability had grown for three years, EHS budgets had stagnated, with fewer organizations investing in providing for managers and staff.

But despite all this, sustainability has become vital to the performance of many businesses. More consumers said they prefer or would pay more for sustainable products, investors have made environmental and social responsibility a key criteria, and corporate reputation hinges on a firm’s ability to communicate their sustainability agenda.


Sustainability Provides Leadership Opportunities

By taking the lead on sustainability and other EHS issues, EHS managers have carved out for themselves a seat at the table where business decisions are made. This allows them to prove their value to the business and make a case for being better equipped to handle the daily challenges they face in their quest to improve operational efficiency and EHS performance.

Success in such matters begins with EHS managers. They safeguard employees, conserve the environment, and reduce the risks associated with non-compliance. In order for businesses to see the benefits that come with better EHS management, firms need to grasp the value and importance that EHS professionals present to the entire company. To do so, organizations must equip managers with the tools they need to lead the charge toward a greener future. Advancing corporate sustainability is the ultimate goal, but without compliance and without the necessary resources that EHS managers need to achieve it, businesses severely hinder themselves in that endeavor.


About the Author

Dr. Christy Cole is the Director of Compliance Services at Dakota Software. In this role, Dr. Cole leads Dakota’s Compliance Services Team of EHS professionals providing tactical project management and client system configuration including delivery of full implementation services to Dakota Software clients. She has more than 30 years of on-site industry experience in the EHS compliance and auditing fields, as well as 13 years of database administration experience with Dakota’s products.

Prior to joining Dakota, Dr. Cole held positions in the regulatory arena and in industry with global responsibility. Dr. Cole holds two Masters Degrees, one in Chemistry and one in Environmental Engineering. She also has a PhD in Environmental Engineering from Texas A&M University. She holds QEP, CPEA, CVI, and Six Sigma Transactional Green Belt certifications.


Photograph: Spectral Lights by Marie Jeanne Iliescu, Bucharest, Romania.

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