A model approach, developed by IOSH, details the journey OSH professionals can take to support their business in social sustainability.
Most people are aware of what it takes to make an organisation sustainable in terms of the environment, but the concept of social sustainability is becoming increasingly important too. Socially sustainable organisations are those that prioritise the adoption of a person-centred approach to everything they do, treating employees as an asset, and creating the conditions to promote decent work where human capital underpins corporate performance and sustainability.
There can be little doubt that the role of OSH professionals and the goals of social sustainability are complementary, as both are concerned with ensuring people are healthy, safe and well.
‘OSH professionals play a crucial role in helping organisations to create reporting and learning cultures in which prevention lessons are learned, and they are best-placed to work across the business to support social sustainable practices and OSH performance evaluation and reporting,’ says Ruth Wilkinson, IOSH head of health and safety.
In fact, many existing OSH activities support the drive toward social sustainability, so OSH professionals should not feel intimidated by contributing to reporting instruments, supporting the preparation of non-financial disclosures, or considering the social impacts of business activities.
So says Dr Chris Davis, IOSH research programme lead and author of the upcoming IOSH publication, Wave generation: a model approach to socially sustainable safety and health as part of its Catch the Wave infinitive.
‘OSH professionals may be wondering where to start when it comes to this area,’ Chris says. ‘They are being asked to consider ISO 45001 and ISO 45003, as well as working towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the principles of the International Corporate Governance Network.
‘However, when you look at the core principles of OSH that those in the profession are familiar with – in essence, ensuring all workers are safe, healthy and well – they are already contributing to social sustainability.’
A model approach
The upcoming publication introduces a new model approach. It consolidates existing knowledge on OSH and social sustainability, and takes as its conceptual starting point the OSH management system structure outlined in the ISO 45001 international standard.
The model contains five elements that reflect the growth to maturity of OSH, from a primarily preventive function to one that is far more outward-looking, future-focused and supports a social sustainability agenda (see The elements of IOSH’s model approach to social sustainability, below). There is also a sixth element, reflecting that OSH is often influenced by broader factors such as organisational culture, communication, and equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI). This falls outside of the main model but is shown as an overarching lens that always impacts on the main model.
Chris says this reflects the journey of OSH professionals through their careers, reflecting that everyone will be at different stages. ‘As you move through the model, it reflects that maturity journey – from core principles that OSH professionals use all the time, to new areas where they may have less experience,’ he says.
‘So OSH professionals will be able to look at the new model and consider what they are already doing and where they need to go next. The further through the model you go, the more broadly you are operating – for example, striking up relationships with different functions within the business and stakeholder groups.
‘It is important to note that the model is iterative – in other words, it isn’t a single journey at the end of which one reaches a finish line. In fact, as knowledge of socially sustainable OSH develops and interconnections become clearer, opportunities to evolve those core elements are likely to emerge.’
The elements of IOSH’s model approach to social sustainability
1. People: it is crucial that organisations ensure their people are fit, healthy and well, and well-equipped and competent enough to undertake their roles, as well as being engaged and satisfied.
2. Work and environment: there is a clear opportunity for OSH professionals not only to provide safe working conditions, a safe physical and psychosocial environment and appropriate equipment, but also to create an environment in which workers can find purpose, autonomy and job satisfaction.
3. System and integration: developing the capacity to monitor, review, report on and learn from the dynamic relationship between people and work is essential. Not only is this beneficial to OSH, but the existence of a systematic approach to OSH will also provide reassurance – particularly when independently reviewed or certified – to those interested in the long-term stability of an organisation.
4. Organisation: it is important to have a relationship between OSH and other functions. Given that the most valuable information related to OSH performance is thought to come from other functions or external sources, cross-functional collaboration and communication streams could be hugely beneficial.
5. External: there is a growing expectation within reporting instruments for organisations to consider their engagement with – and, of course, impact upon – stakeholder groups. As such, given the universal nature of its fundamental principles, OSH could well be seen as being a valuable vehicle through which organisations are able to engage externally.
Chris says the COVID-19 pandemic meant that many OSH professionals had to adapt their role practically overnight as businesses began to turn to them for support in areas they weren’t familiar with. At the same time, businesses increasingly began to recognise how OSH is crucial if they are to be successful.
Ruth says: ‘Organisations cannot be sustainable without protecting the safety, health and wellbeing of their most vital resource: workers. Consequently, companies driven by a human-centred purpose that embraces the interplay of social sustainability, thoughtful human capital management and a comprehensive set of employee safety, health and wellbeing practices – all critical components of a robust human capital management strategy – are more capable of producing lasting value, profit and sustainable workforces.’
An organisation can’t have a successful sustainability strategy without a strong health and safety culture
Businesses, and the OSH professionals who support them, are at different stages of the journey towards social sustainability.
Lesley Kavanagh, senior director for partner responsibility at Nike, is in no doubt about the importance of OSH in creating a socially sustainable business.
‘I have dedicated 30 years of my career to advancing sustainability, including health and safety strategies, within manufacturing environments,’ she says.
‘I believe all people have a fundamental right to the protection of life and health in the workplace. As OSH professionals, we can help organisations have the right processes, systems, resources and cultures in place to create safer and healthier working environments for employees and people working across the value chain. This can have a ripple effect into the communities in which companies operate.
‘Not only is putting people first the right thing to do, but it is critical to the success of any business. In addition to mitigating risks, it allows the company to become an employer of choice, attracting and retaining the best talent. This is a virtuous circle leading to a more engaged workforce that can be a source of innovation and improved productivity.
‘An organisation can’t have a successful sustainability strategy without a strong health and safety culture. As OSH professionals, we can continue to influence and lead by example, to help ensure health and safety is a key component of all sustainability strategies.’
It is important for practitioners to understand how overarching factors – culture, communication, approach to EDI and so on – influence everything that happens within an organisation. By doing so, it may provide insight that explains the success or failure of an OSH management system.