The evolution of OSH sustainability

Sustainability and human capital are indelibly linked with safety and health. Development of the first concept started to emerge in the 1970s. Initially concerned with environmental sustainability, it gathered pace in 1987 with the publication of the United Nations’ (UN) Brundtland Commission report, Our Common Future (bit.ly/30LjLQs). 

Although sustainability is commonly described under the headings of social, economic and environmental, the focus has been on the last one. Safety and health issues, which can be considered to sit under the social heading, have not received the same level of attention globally. 

Linked to the above is the concept of human capital, which is concerned with the most important resource for most organisations – their workers. How they are recruited, retained, engaged, trained, rewarded and protected are the fundamental aspects of human capital, and organisations that fail to address such issues will not be sustainable in the long term. A series of industrial disasters in the 1980s highlighted the importance of improving OSH, with some organisations forced out of business due to penalties and loss of reputation. 

Significant in the evolution of OSH sustainability has been the move to encourage organisations to report on metrics, on the basis that what is measured is managed. The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) has expanded the number of metrics from four to ten (GRI 403). This is to promote wider and more meaningful reporting of relevant statistics so that progress on safety and health issues can be measured and guide the future focus of attention. Performance reporting has been ad hoc and sporadic, with much disagreement on what should be reported. The Center for Safety and Health Sustainability has helped to progress the management and reporting of relevant issues. 

Significant in the evolution of OSH sustainability has been the move to encourage organisations to report on metrics


Emphasis has also been placed on the role that supply chains in organisations have in influencing good OSH practice, and the impact that responsible purchasing of goods and services can have. Large organisations can be instrumental in setting standards and assisting smaller ones to meet them. This can influence the future of safety and health in valuing and protecting workers, and the sustainability of organisations. OSH professionals can be decisive players in encouraging and standardising reporting of metrics and working within organisations to prevent shortfalls in performance identified.

The World Health Organization and the UN have also recognised that, because of the ageing demographic of workers and current patterns of retirement, the social security systems of many countries could be bankrupt within 15 years. The sustainability and human capital concepts have been used to apply pressure on organisations and governments to keep people at work longer. The ability to do so will depend on the sustainability of human capital policies and actions. 

OSH professionals can foster good practice, encouraging organisations to enhance human capital policy and actions to safeguard the interests of older workers and have a sustainable employment system for the future. A holistic approach to sustainability, informed by human capital, will benefit workers globally and enhance the profession’s reputation. 


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