Opinion

Can we interest corporate investors in injury rates?

Editor, IOSH Magazine

We all know that most organisations do not give the safety and health of their workforces a high enough priority.

That is partly because, disasters aside, business leaders are not judged on their OSH performance. Their pay rises and upward moves are almost all determined by cost control and maximising profits.

We often argue in these pages that OSH practitioners can do more to raise the profile of their discipline and persuade their employers to take them and their risk management skills more seriously. That’s true but, given the structural factors working against them, the profession’s cause could use some bolstering from outside.

That’s where Kathy Seabrook and the Center for Safety and Health Sustainability come in.

Fifteen years ago corporate social responsibility was strictly in the “nice to have” category for most businesses; something they did to generate a few virtuous paragraphs in their annual reports.

Lobbying of the corporations and their funders by environmental non-governmental organisations and consumer groups has changed that. Big business has had to assume the responsibilities of corporate citizenship, embracing carbon footprinting and emissions reduction schemes.

These programmes are still nominally a voluntary overlay on the safety net of laws on issues from pollution control to modern slavery. But they have hardened into certifications and rankings and reporting standards for what is known as environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance that publicly quoted companies cannot easily ignore.

The banks, insurers, pensions and mutual funds that buy and sell their equity use organisations’ ESG reporting as one indication of their sound management and risk control. And that puts direct pressure on executive boards. You can kill a lot of people and never lose your licence to trade but if the big institutions turn their backs on your stock you are in trouble.

It has long seemed perverse that the ESG certifications and rankings that credit companies for checking their suppliers in lower-income countries have acceptable labour standards don’t take account of the accident and illness rates of those businesses’ direct workforces.

Seabrook and the organisation she heads, supported by IOSH, are trying to change that. They are persuading the sustainability indices one by one to include OSH indicators, such as injury rates and management systems certification, in their reporting requirements. Then explaining to the institutional investors why they should take note of them. In one case they have even helped mandate standardised accident rate calculations so investors can compare corporate safety performance directly.

This is mainly a concern to the big corporations of course but, if the trend in environmental reporting is anything to go by, there will be a trickle-down effect as big business begins to expect of its suppliers the standards it has to meet.

The development might not be the cavalry riding over the hill to the rescue of beleaguered OSH managers, but anything that aligns executives’ priorities more closely to those of practitioners must be welcome.

Louis Wustemann is editor, IOSH Magazine. He was previously editor of Health and Safety at Work magazine and Environment in Business. He has written, edited and consulted on health and safety, environmental and employment matters for more than 25 years.

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