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Moving beyond the green side of sustainability.

Cunningham TR
OBM Network News 2012 Jul; 26(Special Issue):5-6
Green is sexy these days, and many companies have hopped on the green bandwagon to realize greater public recognition, greater profits, and the satisfaction of knowing they are contributing to a better future for our planet. Occupational safety and health (OSH), on the other hand, does not always receive the same kind of positive attention. Fewer companies are touting their safety record as a means to growing their business. In comparing the green movement and occupational safety and health, two popular rock bands come to mind: The Black Keys and Nickelback. The Black Keys are overwhelmingly popular currently, with countless plays of their music by advertisers looking to capitalize on the rapidly increasing fan base. And even though they are widely popular, lots of people would have you believe they were among the first fans of the band. Nickelback is also a very popular band with lots of fans. However, some audience segments would argue their music is something that must be tolerated in order to hear the next song on your favorite rock station. And Cadillac is not trying to sell cars by playing their latest hit. But there is one very important thing these bands have in common - it took extraordinary effort for them to achieve success. Similarly, while green is cool and OSH can be perceived as a necessary drag, both domains require significant voluntary effort to achieve a meaningful impact. In a brief editorial, Geller (2009) lists the parallel barriers to safety behavior and pro-environmental behaviors: (a) problem denial, (b) bad habits, (c) diffusion of responsibility, (d) belief that individual efforts will not make a difference, and (e) lack of motivation due to lack of soon and certain consequences. In short, improvements in both environmental sustainability and OSH require individuals to take action above and beyond the status quo. The similarities between environmental sustainability and OSH efforts are significant enough that the two may be thought of as major components of the overall concept of sustainability in the workplace (Cunningham, Galloway-Williams & Geller, 2010). But most industries have been slow to embrace these parallels. Construction has been heavily influenced by the green movement, but it continues to be a high-risk industry, consistently accounting for the most occupational fatalities of any major sector (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012). At the upcoming Behavior Change for a Sustainable World Conference, I will be presenting exploratory research which investigates what construction business owners do both for environmental sustainability and workplace safety, and how they view influences on their companies' activities. We conducted key-informant interviews with owners of small construction businesses who self-identified as 'green' or non-green. The themes for the questions were based around both environmental sustainability and occupational safety& health, asking 'what does (green or OSH) mean to you, what do you do for (green or OSH), why do you do it, what else do you think you could be doing, what are the barriers, etc. Based on the responses of small construction business owners, there is a significant overlap among factors which affect both environmental sustainability and workplace safety and health activities. Both green-certified and non-green-certified contractors recognized overlap between domains regarding the future human impact, and identified similar drivers and barriers for OSH. Green-certified contractors articulated greater understanding of the barriers to OSH activities and viewed environmental sustainability activities not only as values-driven, but also as opportunities for profit by marketing themselves as green. Green-certified contractors reported both greater environmental sustainability activities and also greater safety and health activities such as daily toolbox talks. Thus, it seems there may be some common influences or contingencies which shape and reinforce not only specific behaviors in both domains, but also a type of overall sustainability behavior. OBM stands to make significant contributions to sustainability, not just as it relates to the environment, but also as it relates to people and profitability. OBM practitioners have already made significant contributions in each of these domains with interventions to affect improvements in environmentally responsible behavior, safety and health behavior, as well as quality- and efficiency-related behavior. The business world has already begun to talk about sustainability in ways that include planet, people, and profit. OBMers can teach business leaders techniques to achieve truly sustainable organization, and claim that they were "doing sustainability" way back when, before it became popular.
Environmental-factors; Environmental-exposure; Safety-measures; Safety-practices; Behavior; Construction; Construction-industry; Risk-factors; Work-environment; Workers
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OBM Network Newsletter
Page last reviewed: September 2, 2020
Content source: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Education and Information Division