Think green

Many synergies exist between environment, health and safety

Sparating health and safety from environment is an increasingly difficult task. Whether it’s the aftermath of a natural disaster — such as massive floods — or human or machine error — such as a derailed oil tanker — both the environment and the health and safety of workers are implicated.

When these instances occur, occupational health and safety professionals are quickly becoming the go-to people to deal with both sides of the coin. 

“In the past, it was sort of an afterthought, health and safety, then we’ll look at the environment, and now we’re shifting to people seeing it as interconnected and they need to be thought of in the same system,” says Jo-Anne Clarke, associate director of teaching and learning at the University of Calgary Continuing Education.

And OHS professionals are in a great position to tackle environmental issues, says Andrew Cooper, president of the Canadian Society of Safety Engineering.

“It’s really about stewardship, and stewardship of process, activities and results; and the occupational health and safety folks are so well aligned with that duty of care that for many of us, it’s a natural synergy.”

There seems to be a genuine inclination of OHS professionals toward the environment. The University of Calgary Continuing Education has an environmental stream as part of its occupational health and safety program that is very popular among students, says Clarke. 

“We try to emphasize the OHS and E because we live in Alberta where many people in health and safety are employed in the oil and gas sector, doing field work, and environmental issues definitely cross over and intersect with that,” she says. “You need to look at it as a full system… And we find our students have a real thirst for that knowledge.”

As a rule of thumb, if it’s a problem inside the plant, it’s likely going to be a problem outside the plant, says Laura Rourke, principal of Hummingbird Environment Safety and Health in Cambridge, Ont. 

“It’s often that you’re connecting those two worlds — things you do to manage things inside sort of flow outside the building and have those other implications,” she says.

Chemical spills is one major area where OHS and environment intersect, and spills make up the biggest regulation under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. If a spill does occur, the employer has a duty to report it to the Ministry of Environment, which may come on-site to conduct an inspection. 

From an environmental perspective, the ministry wants to make sure the spill does not enter the waterways, and from an OHS perspective, it’s also a concern, says Tehzin Dhanani, manager, health, safety and environment at Enwave Energy in Toronto.

“If we have sulphuric acid, for example, that has huge implications for how much those fumes can be inhaled by our employees… Or if our employees are not wearing the proper gear, splash guards or the right gloves, they might get reactions from handling contaminants,” she says.   

Dhanani regularly updates Enwave’s spills program and provides training to workers on what to do in case of a spill, such as how to respond, contain it and clean it up.

“(It covers) roles and responsibilities, such as who’s going to report it, do our guys know what to look for, do they know what to do with it, who then reports it to the Ministry of Environment?” she says. “We also have to fill out an investigation report: How did it happen, what was the root cause, corrective and preventive action.” 

OHS professionals should understand emergency preparedness around hazardous chemicals and materials, when it comes to both workers and the environment.

Waste management is another concern. Employers need to make sure they are properly separating, handling and disposing of material. They also need to consider the ground contamination that may occur in everyday processes.

“Having chemicals collected in some sort of water process that just gets put down the drain — those are things that then have implications to the community. So, how is that being handled? In all these situations, you’re considering exposure to employees but you also need to consider what’s happening outside the building,” says Rourke.

Much of this information is spelled out in a company’s legal permits, so the OHS professional should gather all the appropriate documents and become familiar with what the company is licensed to do, she says. 

Noise also straddles both OHS and environment. 

In most jurisdictions, OHS legislation stipulates the steady noise level permitted for a full eight-hour work shift is 85 dBA, but it is 90 dBA in Quebec and 87 dBA for federally regulated employers. Since a worker’s exposure to noise generally varies throughout the day, an 85 dBA limit may be thought of as the permissible time-weighted average noise exposure over an eight-hour shift. 

When the exposure limit is exceeded, the employer is required to put in place measures to reduce workers’ exposure, such as engineering controls, work practices, PPE and clearly visible signage.

On the environmental side, if a plant or manufacturing site is emitting noise that would be interfering with a neighbour’s normal enjoyment of his environment, he can try to reject the company’s ability to get approval for those noise emissions, says Dhanani. 

Ventilation is another example. If a company is having air quality issues inside the building that must be vented outdoors, it could affect neighbours and wildlife, says Rourke.

“We have OHS laws for exposure to employees inside the building, but now, by poking a hole through the roof and venting that outside, are you meeting those same environmental laws?” 

Environmental laws

There are a variety of environmental laws OHS professionals need to be aware of, particularly the federal Environmental Protection Act or related provincial acts. Fortunately for OHS professionals, the health and safety laws have many similarities to environmental ones.

“The general duty clauses are very similar, the enforcing bodies are similar, the acts are laid out in sort of a similar fashion… And that’s why to centralize it and have it come under the EHS (environmental health and safety) group kind of makes sense,” says Rourke. 

One difference between health and safety law and environmental law is that environmental protection is a shared responsibility for all parties. 

“If you have a spill, it’s every single party’s responsibility; everybody from the owner of that site, to the contractor to the person who caused it,” says Dhanani. “All parties are responsible for that spill and all parties need to meet with the Ministry of the Environment and respond to any questions they may have.”

Occupational health and safety professionals should also have a basic knowledge of the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act and the Hazardous Products Act. They also need to look at the municipal bylaws for items such as protecting the water, says Rourke. 

Management systems

The ISO 14001 environmental management system is one that OHS professionals should consider. It is built to align with the OHSAS 18001 program as well as the ISO 9000 series of quality standards. 

“They are about documenting your processes and developing goals and objectives and a program to implement continual improvement,” says Cooper. “If you look at 14001 and compare it to 18001, the major difference is in some content — they are structured pretty much the same; the alignment is incredible.”

Many companies are taking a holistic view of management systems and receiving accreditation on both the 14001 and 18001 at the same time — which is something Dhanani hopes to implement at Enwave. 

Both management systems mention sustainability, which has been a buzzword in the industry lately. There is an increased focus on environmental impacts and stewardship because it has resonance with stakeholders, shareholders and the broader community, says Cooper. 

“We want to make sure we respect the environment and we’re minimizing our impact — that will drive attention and excitement about the product or service we have to offer as an organization… which means people will be much more excited to be involved with us, to participate and to invest in our organization,” he says.

Job prospects

More and more jobs are popping up for EHS or OHS&E professionals — it is becoming very common for the “E” to be lumped in, says Rourke. Those companies who may still separate the environmental piece would be very large, such as huge automotive manufacturing plants or companies out West with a lot of environmental scrutiny. 

When Dhanani was looking for jobs last year, before being hired by Enwave, about 80 per cent of the jobs she found were for EHS, and she very rarely saw jobs with just OHS in the title. 

“Companies are streamlining. They don’t want to have an environmental manager and then a health and safety manager, they want to bring it together because there are synergies and it makes sense to have them under one umbrella,” she says. 

It would serve young health and safety professionals well — or more seasoned professionals looking to further develop their careers — to ensure they have some understanding of environmental processes. 

“Environment is an add-on,” says Clarke. “As more employers are recognizing the value of that knowledge in the organization, then that just gives them a little bit extra when competing against the people without the ‘E.’”