As greenwashing continues to undermine progress on sustainability, we explore whether ‘OSH-washing’ is an equally concerning issue.
The practice of greenwashing – where an organisation inflates its environmental credentials by misrepresenting facts or withholding information – is in the spotlight as consumers seek out companies committed to sustainability.
Is there a growing danger of ‘OSH-washing’ too – cherry-picking or manipulating safety data such as accident figures – as companies try to paint themselves in a positive light? ‘OSH-washing is already very prevalent,’ says Kate Field CMIOSH, global head, health, safety and wellbeing at BSI. ‘The reality is it’s easy for organisations to manipulate figures and, as these are based on lagging indicators, they also fail to reflect how proactive a company is in terms of OSH.’
It’s a sentiment echoed by Tom Powdrill, head of stewardship at Pensions and Investment Research Consultants (PIRC). ‘Based on our analysis of annual reports, it’s clear that selective presentation of safety data is widespread because companies can choose their own metrics.’
Worse still are those companies that do not record vital data in the first place. Debbie Berkowitz, practitioner fellow at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University in the US, says: ‘In meat and poultry plants in the US, government agencies, unions and community organisations have all found that companies actively endanger injured workers by delaying and denying care, because if they don’t send them to a doctor, they don’t have to record it in their official injury log.’
Trust is everything
Organisations around the world have never before come under such scrutiny, thanks to social media, public interest in social issues and increased activism. And while positive employee word of mouth can make employers desirable, negative word of mouth can spread far and wide. If it directly contradicts how organisations have promoted themselves, this may damage reputations, shake investor confidence and undermine trust. It’s not just about being open about OSH but also about being honest.
‘I think the move to ESG [environmental, social and governance] reporting is helping, although it’s far from flawless,’ Kate says. ‘Many stakeholders don’t understand OSH and therefore don’t know what metrics are genuinely meaningful. Plus there’s a lack of consistency, so different companies use different formats and data.’
Tom agrees: ‘A lack of standardisation makes it hard for stakeholders to assess performance, which is particularly frustrating as investor interest in OSH issues has risen noticeably. However, interest doesn’t equate to understanding, so OSH professionals need to educate investors on what really matters.’
Kate says that to really make a difference, the OSH sector should follow the example of financial reporting, which is subject to an independent audit. ‘That’s the sort of rigour we need to see implemented,’ she says.
MEASURING AND REPORTING
Tips to avoid OSH-washing
- Are you trying to present the best picture, or an accurate one, to stakeholders?
- Think about what you’re recording and why – are you focusing on the right indicators
- Are you presenting a combination of leading and lagging indicators?
- Have you included an analysis of leadership and culture, which are critical to the management of human capital?
- Do you have robust evidence for every claim you’re making?
- Are comparisons fair and meaningful?
- Just because something is difficult to measure doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be measured
- Don’t just focus on the good – be honest about challenges
- Are your systems able to collect the data you need?
- How can you continually improve the process?
- Catch the Wave: a report on effective OSH metrics will be published later this year.
Consistency is key
In a bid to eradicate greenwashing in the UK, the Competition and Markets Authority introduced its Green Claims Code in 2021 to protect consumers from misleading environmental information, while the Financial Conduct Authority opened a consultation in 2022 on new rules to ensure consumers and firms can trust a product’s sustainability claims. Is greater regulation, standardisation and oversight required in the OSH arena too?
‘Current international standards, such as GRI 403, don’t go far enough. To raise the bar, we need a global consensus on meaningful OSH reporting,’ says Kate.
‘The new IS0 45004 will provide guidance on how to monitor, measure, analyse and evaluate OSH performance, with a focus on leading, as opposed to lagging, indicators. This will enable an organisation to show it’s genuinely taking its health and safety responsibilities seriously.’
Kathy A Seabrook CFIOSH, CEO and founder of consultancy Global Solutions Inc, agrees an international standard for OSH could be on the cards: ‘As government legislation, litigation and voluntary standards have all come into play to counteract greenwashing, it’s reasonable to anticipate that using these same control measures would incentivise companies to focus on reporting and disclosing accurate, globally recognised OSH metrics to deter potential future OSH-washing.’
Be the conscience
OSH professionals have a duty to highlight OSH-washing in their organisation and are also perfectly positioned to act as a catalyst for change. Executives say that the two biggest barriers preventing their company from progressing on ESG issues are balancing them with growth targets and a lack of reporting standards and regulations/complexity (PwC, 2021).
As trusted advisers, OSH professionals can educate management on why focusing on human capital is fundamental to value creation and not a trade-off between ESG and growth. Until reporting is standardised, they can also help the company to navigate pitfalls by presenting examples of best practice and benchmarking against competitors.
Crucially, they can also ensure that OSH is embedded in a company’s culture. Because, ultimately, transparency needs to start from within.
PwC. (2021) Beyond compliance: Consumers and employees want business to do more on ESG. (accessed 19 December 2022).
Tung I. (2022) Fact-checking Amazon’s bogus workplace health and safety claims. National Employment Law Project. (accessed 19 December 2022).