EHS: Breath Mint or Candy, Support Function or Integral to the Business?

Bruce Klafter

Bruce Klafter

As we embark upon our semi-regular, three-year strategic plan update here, I have been reflecting upon the above question.  I strongly suspect it is a familiar question for many of you.  Notwithstanding a strong commitment to environment, safety and sustainability in general, many EHS executives and managers struggle with other indicators that the commitment is thinner or more precarious than we would like.

As they say on television, do you suffer from these telltale signs?

  • Is your budget shrinking?  Despite some surveys that suggest EHS growth is occurring in some sectors, I rarely encounter colleagues who are boasting of budget increases.
  • Is your headcount increasing?  Any increases generally have to be offset somewhere for a net decrease.
  • Are your executives and senior managers consistently active participants in your EHS management system (EHSMS, i.e. do they participate in inspections, do they cover EHS in all-hands meetings, etc.)?  The trouble sign here is that participation can wax and wane dramatically as other business conditions intrude.
  • Is EHS built into the key plans for the company, operating plans, personal performance plans, etc.?  Many executives expect or demand EHS performance, but they may also resist being measured and rewarded (or penalized) for it.
  • Does EHS have a seat at the table when strategic planning is taking place?  There is often a perception that EHS and sustainability are no broader than compliance or that EHS programs are largely tactical in nature as opposed to strategic.
  • Where does EHS report in to and does that structure meet EHS’ needs (i.e. is EHS highly placed and placed in such a way as to create synergy)?  The EHS organization can be grafted on to many organizations (e.g. security, legal, government affairs, operations, HR) and runs the risk of being misunderstood or neglected.

I could probably go on, but I think the idea should be clear enough – a compelling business case for EHS and a commitment to strong performance and continuous improvement are still subject to other business conditions and constraints.  Is this an inevitable and unending challenge for EHS professionals?  What are you experiencing in your companies?  Are you viewed as core or context, support function or key business partner, candy or breath mint?

About Bruce Klafter

Bruce Klafter is Vice President of Corporate Social & Environmental Responsibility at Flextronics International, where he provides leadership and strategic guidance for the company’s global operations. Prior to assuming this role, Mr. Klafter directed Applied Material’s EHS and sustainability programs and began his career as a distinguished environmental and natural resources lawyer.

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  1. Dean M. Calhoun, CIH

    August 10, 2010


    Good questions, but on some of these questions, one may argue that EH&S professionals have been successful. The larger, more visible signs of EH&S problems have mostly been addressed. A company that has truly integrated EH&S into the business may not need a larger staff or a larger EH&S budget. EH&S expenses should be integrated into the business activities that are incurring the costs (and savings). Regarding where EH&S reports to, I believe it was Bill Sugar (I could be wrong) that said many years ago that the top EH&S professional in the company should not be more than 3 levels down from the CEO. I look forward to hearing other comments.

  2. Bruce Klafter

    August 10, 2010

    I tend to agree that budget and headcount are not necessarily the best indicators of EHS success – and I regularly tell my staff the same thing! The more troubling signs for me are actually the exclusion of EHS and Sustainability from strategic planning. That phenomenon suggests that the business case for EHS&S has either not been communicated effectively or has been misconstrued somehow.

  3. David Williams

    August 16, 2010

    I have seen success in limiting or avoiding the situation where “EHS executives and managers struggle with other indicators that the commitment is thinner or more precarious than we would like” through a combination of:

    –Framing EHS in terms that interest the “business” – risk management, linking to Operational Excellence (Lean, Six Sigma and Continuous Improvement), management systems (including a strong link with quality management systems), focus on business benefits

    –Tie in with the strategic plan of a major business unit – EHS was integrated into and aligned with a key strategic planning effort that was focused on transforming the way a manufacturing network was organized and how it interfaced with the commercial organization from a supply chain perspective

    –Demonstrating the benefits of a strong EHS culture and management systems approach beyong EHS performance improvements – we believed that the elements key to a strong EHS culture and management systems approach were also key elements for a strong and engaging operating culture within a manufacturing network. If successful, there would be a strong EHS culture and performance and also a strong quality culture and performance and operational excellence. In this particular situation we definitely saw that this was the case as backed up by the concurrence of site management that this was the case.

    Bottom line was that EHS demonstrated its value beyond the compliance baseline, which helped minimize the peaks and valleys of commitment as senior management personnel changed and business priorities shifted.

    *Note – these are my personal views and do not represent the views of my employer*

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