Organisations are facing ever increasing levels of scrutiny regarding their OSH performance. Investors, asset managers, customers and regulators are seeking assurance that businesses are looking after the people who work for them and the communities in which they operate, writes IOSH's Angela Gray.
For many stakeholders, it is not enough for a company to merely be profitable; it also needs to demonstrate good corporate citizenship through environmental awareness, ethical behaviour, and sound corporate governance practices, being conscious of the kind of impact they are having on all aspects of society. In other words, companies should balance profit-generating activities with responsible policies and practices.
We know that Boards and their Executive teams set the ethical tone and directly influence the culture by their own example – what they say and do and, arguably more significantly, what they don’t say and do.
The increase in stakeholder focus on corporate ethics and behaviour presents itself in several terms, for example, ‘human capital’ and ‘social sustainability’. Whatever term or phase a business adopts, the intent is the same – it is the impact an employer has on people and wider society.
In his annual 2022 letter to Chief Executives, Larry Fink of Blackrock, the world's largest asset manager, highlighted the need for mutually beneficial relationships between businesses and their employees, customers, suppliers, and communities which they rely upon to prosper. He goes on to say '…we ask businesses to demonstrate how they’re going to deliver on their responsibility to shareholders, including through sound environmental, social, and governance practices and policies.' The key word for me is ‘demonstrate’. In other words, not just talking about it, but actually doing it.
From an OSH professional point of view, we should be reflecting on how well OSH is integrated within the existing corporate governance framework. Do your existing OSH systems and the people management aspects support and enable those governance arrangements and practices? Does it provide you with relevant, reliable, and verifiable reporting for inclusion in corporate disclosures?
A Board should be able to explain to stakeholders the rationale for their strategic decisions and explain whether or not they have achieved their goals/targets, and why. This should include the strategic approach to aspects of OSH and social sustainability leadership and, ultimately, performance. A key question is whether or not the existing processes and reporting tools actually provide the board, or the key decision makers, with appropriate and timely information which, in turn, informs strategic decision making and, importantly, the narrative for those choices.
'It is no longer enough just to have great technical knowledge of health and safety law and practices. We need to grow and extend our competencies into areas that address the broader scope of social sustainability'
Governance is concerned with structure and processes for decision making, accountability, control, and behaviour at the very top of an entity. It is through good governance arrangements that the ethical tone can then cascade down and throughout an organisation.
As human capital and social sustainability become more important, business leaders are recognising that there are more aspects to OSH than the traditional safety management processes. Mental health, wellbeing, and happiness all now feature in good OSH discussions, strategic direction, and planning. Businesses increasingly recognise that they should be contributing in other ways to improve the lives of the people they affect, such as by creating decent jobs, goods and services that help meet basic needs, and more inclusive value chains.
In this changing landscape of the world of work, the role and remit of the OSH professional has changed. It certainly demands a rebalancing of the ‘H’ with the ‘S’ in the term Health and Safety, and it means there are new skills required if we are to continue having a credible voice at the top table.
It is no longer enough just to have great technical knowledge of health and safety law and practices. We need to grow and extend our competencies into areas that address the broader scope of social sustainability. This will probably necessitate the need for closer collaboration with previously considered disparate professions, for example the HR and People teams, health and well-being professionals, to name but a few.
OSH professionals must be able to influence, support and implement strategies and plans that will be beneficial to the organisation, employees, and the communities in which they operate. We have a role to play in harnessing business to improve society.
Angela is a senior OSH specialist at IOSH