Insights · September 6th, 2007
The topic today is the future of something called EHS Auditing, or environmental, health and safety auditing.
I am on my way to Philadelphia for the 25th Anniversary meeting of the Auditing Roundtable, where I will provide a keynote speech looking at the future of this unique association. Following my talk, Roundtable members will discuss the future as they look to the next 25 years. As a futurist speaker and consultant I am curious to hear their own views on the future.
Briefly, environmental audits are in some ways similar to financial audits. Conducted by internal teams, or external consultants, or a combination, the intent is to assess the performance of an organization against a variety of standards related to safeguarding the health and of workers and customers, and the protection of the environment. The audit process concludes with an action plan for improvement or corrective measures. Most standards are set by government, though some are advanced by internal policies. One can imagine how the field of EHS Auditing has grown in recent decades, given increasing concern about the relevant issues, and vast increases in regulations and guidelines.
The profession is shaped by all the usual future trends and forces, from advances in information technology to political pressures. In my keynote speech I will suggest that the following forces stand out for the field of EHS Auditing.
Moving upstream from correction to prevention
There are two ways that organizations can deal with EHS rules and standards. They can play close to the edge, and correct problems when they occur, or when they are discovered. Or, they can become pro-active and anticipatory, attempting to build in safe and clean processes from the beginning. The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, is encouraging a process of “self-auditing.â€ Under this program, companies that report problems, even criminal violations, through a process of regular self auditing are not subject to prosecution, provided the company promptly reports a problem and fixes it. Given this incentive and others the EHS auditing enterprise will move upstream, much as health care is attempting to do. In addition, the auditing process has evolved from a check-list approach to one of assessing current and future management processes.
Emphasis on the business case for good EHS practices
Rather than view EHS issues as simply problems to avoid, there is a recognition that pinpointing waste or toxic emissions, reducing carbon output and energy use, improving quality, reducing product liability, and so on all have a tremendous impact on the bottom line. Do we need any more evidence than the recent experiences with Chinese toys made with lead paint, and the cost of recalling rather than making them safe in the first place?
Greenhouse gas and carbon footprint emphasis
Organizations of all kinds are moving quickly toward getting a handle on their emissions of green house cases, and on reducing their carbon footprint. As evidence of the global climate crisis accumulates more quickly this will become a central project for many companies. Improving performance in this area will have financial benefits as well, particularly energy efficiency. This is a topic we blog about frequently.
Over the next fifteen years most products and manufacturing processes may be touched by nanotechnology. The ability to manipulate matter at the nanoscale, and the possible dangers of new materials small enough to migrate anywhere in the body, mean that researchers and industry must get ahead of the safety and environmental issues. There are already some 400 products on the market with manufactured nanoparticles, and testing of long-term toxic effects lags. No area of environment, health and safety stands to benefit more from moving upstream to prevention than nanotechnology. The Green Nano Initiative is a good place to start.
One outcome of the standard GRIN technology revolution (Genomics, Robotics, Information Technology, and Nanotechnology) has been the development of better and better sensors for such things as airborne toxins. These can be placed in personal ID badges, as well as placed geographically to provide early detection and warning systems. Nanotech promises, some day, to shrink such sensors to the size of dust, and at that point we ought to be able to monitor most anything we want to. Add to this the ubiquitous nature of cameras, especially personally operated cameras such as cell phones, and we can see a future society where environmental, health and safety issues cannot be hidden, but are immediately exposed. In fact, the ability of workers to record and report problems will lead to increasing conflicts over secrecy versus exposure. Our recent blog about Google Sky is related.
Low level toxin accumulation in the food chain
We have been living better with chemistry for a few generations now. Turning the Future Into Revenue, the chapter on environment begins with a discussion of low level toxin build up. It seems likely that in the coming few decades a surprising number of chemical additives once thought to be safe, have now accumulated in the environment and in the food chain as to be problems. Recent studies by Roger Payne of the accumulation of persistent organic pollutants in whales and dolphins demonstrate that even when toxin levels when measured in water are safe, their accumulation over generations and up the food chain can be dangerous. These discoveries, and more to come with humans, suggest that we will see major efforts to curb more substances once considered safe.
Global water quality issues
A chain of events seems to be underway that will accentuate concern over global water supplies. Glacial runoff provides the primary drinking water for billions of people. Most of the world’s glaciers are in retreat, many retreating more rapidly than ever observed in human history. Global warming projections and current melt rates suggest, for example, that two-thirds of the Himalayan glaciers which provide drinking water for 1.3 billion people in China may be gone by 2050, and most all will have disappeared by 2100. To issues are obvious, doing what can be done to reduce global warming, and protecting remaining water quality at all costs.
Global economic dynamics related to EHS
India, China and the various other rising economic powers are coming late to the game of environment, health and safety concerns. Internal pressures to reduce pollution can be seen in these regions. There are growing external pressures to address all EHS concerns in order to achieve global goals and to sustain various international economic agreements. The EHS auditing profession, therefore, will be increasingly carried out on a global scale.
This is the wildcard. Environmental, health and safety issues are often the result of lack of knowledge of long term impacts, and often the result of poor decisions or processes; mistakes in other words. But, very often, deliberate decisions are made to ignore rules, bury adverse research, and seek short term financial gain over long term environmental responsibility. The auditing process is the check and balance on this unfortunate human frailty.