In the 1970s, back when I was in high school/university and working summer jobs in Canada at construction sites and lumber yards, I do not remember ever running across a safety officer or in fact any sort of HSE professional at the job site.
In the early 1980s, I worked as an environmental scientist and had a great time sampling lakes and rivers in remote locations in northern Canada. I may have had one short session on boat safety but that would have been it. We did catch a lot of nice fish however!
In the mid-1980s, while studying for my doctorate I had my first real safety course, which was related to the use of radioactive isotopes in the laboratory.
Fast forward 40 years and pretty much any reasonable-sized company, even in most developing countries, has an HSE officer on site if not an HSE Department (albeit often one and the same thing!). Or, now even more likely they have an HSSE or HSSEQ position/department (or one of the many variations thereof).
How did we get from effectively nothing to the current situation over the last forty years? More importantly, are we heading in the right direction?
A Very Brief History of the HSE Industry
First Came Occupational Health and Safety (OHS)
The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 in the US and the Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974 in the UK laid down general principles for the management of health and safety at work in the US and UK. These and laws in other countries coupled with the ILO’s Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 led to rapid growth in the health and safety industry and the need for health ans safety personnel at industrial establishments globally. This was also the time when NEBOSH was also established to meet the need for the provision of vocational qualifications in the area of occupational safety and health, and now of course there are countless academic and professional certifications for occupational health and safety professionals.
Then, Along Came Environment (HSE/EHS/SHE)
At about the same time as OHS was gaining a firm foothold, in the 1970s and 1980s many countries were also implementing their first environmental laws and there was increasing requirements for companies to limit air and wastewater emissions and establish more effective practices for solid waste management. This led to the need for improved corporate management of these environmental issues. More often than not, this management function fell under the auspices of the OHS Manager, leading to the creation of the Health, Safety and Environmental (HSE) position (or EHS/SHE depending on the organization).
The discipline of occupational health and safety is of course dynamic and one in which the OHS professional must continually update their skills and knowledge to keep up with advances in laws & regulations, management systems, processes, PPE and safety equipment. But, now in addition to responsibilities for worker health and worker safety the OHS Manager often also became responsible for corporate environmental issues. This was done in many cases with no additional resources. I believe it is fair to say that most HSE professionals were and still are from a worker safety background and have limited formal training in environmental management issues. There are many reasons for this, but certainly one reason is that there are no widely recognized professional certifications akin to NEBOSH or CHSP for environmental professionals. So, it becomes easier for an OHS professional to don the hat of the environmental professional than vice versa.
There is a saying in the environmental industry that "dilution is not the solution to pollution". The analogy here is of course that by adding additional responsibilities (i.e., environmental) to an already challenging position (i.e., worker health and safety) means that something has to give. In my experience, mostly often the environmental issues are short-changed.
Then, Along Came Security (HSSE)
I remember running into the first Health, Safety, Security and Environmental (HSSE) managers in the mid-1990s within the upstream oil and gas industry. The importance of the corporate security function reached a turning point however after 9/11 and now most large corporations have either a separate department for this function or the function has been incorporated into the HSE Manager’s responsibility. This is so widespread now that typing in HSSE into Google search engine gives 576,000 results!
I am not sure why the security function fell so rapidly and consistently within the domain of the HSE Manger? Perhaps it is because of the similarities between security and safety incidents and risk management? In any case, it is now often firmly encased in the domain of the HSE Manager, adding one more significant responsibility to that position. Of course, organizations that take security seriously will have dedicated security personnel assigned to assist or manage this role, but that is probably the exception rather than the rule.
Then, Along Came Quality (HSEQ/HSSEQ/QHSE/QHSSE)
ISO 9001 Quality Management Standards was first published in 1987 and became increasingly popular after the 1994 version was published. And guess what? For many companies the quality function was incorporated into the HSE department, leading to HSEQ/QHSE and even HSSEQ/QHSSE departments/managers/professionals. The HSE professional, who generally was originally trained as an OHS specialist, in the course of a decade or so has in some cases gained responsibility for corporate environmental, security and quality concerns. Do you see a trend here? Should we not be getting worried about "dilution"?
Then, Along Came CSR (HSE&CSR/HSSE&CSR)
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) became the buzzword for corporate executives and business management in the early 2000s. Increasingly, larger organizations are ascribing to principles of CSR – balancing social, environmental and economic factors to operate in a sustainable manner. More progressive organization have CSR Executives/Management positions, but for many companies that function has also been allocated to the HSE Department – hence we now see HSE&CSR or in some cases HSSE&CSR departments/positions.
To be clear, I have no issue with how a company organizes its internal structure; that is a function of what is best for each organization. In any case, those organizations with a true commitment to CSR will also provide sufficient resources to address this issue, whether the CSR function is within its own business unit or integrated into the HSE/HSSE business unit. Unfortunately, it appears to me that some/many organizations are not truly committed and are simply paying lip service to jump on the newest bandwagon. They do this simply by adding a few more letters to a business unit's name or position's title but with no concurrent increase in resources to effectively address and manage these additional responsibilities. In other words, they ascribe to the "it's better to look good then be good" model!
Then, Along Came Sustainability (HSE&Sustainability/HSSE&Sustainability)
As if this isn’t confusing enough, over the last few years we now are seeing the introduction of a Sustainability Manager/Executive function. Some argue the CSR and Sustainability function are the same, but many argue that they have different purposes. In any case, guess where this responsibility is being placed – yes, often in the realm of the HSE/HSSE/HSSEQ Manager. So now some lucky individuals may find themselves responsible for worker safety, occupational health, environmental issues, product quality control, corporate social responsibility and sustainability or HSSEQ&CSR&S – quite a job and quite a mouthful!
Where Are We Going and Are We Heading in the Right Direction?
Of course, there are many organizations have dedicated personnel and/or departments for each of the above functions. They have the financial support and the corporate commitment to ensure adequate resources are being placed in each function. That's wonderful. But, many companies have neither the resources nor the commitment and pay lip service to these "trends" by adding letters to the HSE job function and somehow expecting that their HSE personnel can take care of these issues.
It seems to me that most HSE profession started their careers as technocrats (engineers, scientists and experienced technicians), and most came from a worker safety background. I have no problem at all with an effective HSE Executive/Manager and/or Department expanding into all of the other disciplines listed above provided that they have sufficient resources to assist in carrying out their roles and responsibilities. But let’s be realistic. Most HSE professionals are already working a full-time job and to expect that they can effectively carry out these additional job functions on their own is simply not plausible.
One of my favorite quotes is from Konrad Lorenz who stated:
"Philosophers are people who know less and less about more and more, until they know nothing about everything.
Scientists are people who know more and more about less and less, until they know everything about nothing.”
Is it our goal to become “philosophers” or “scientists”? While I have great respect for both (and I do have a Ph.D. in environmental science so I am not about to bash myself!) I do not think that the most effective HSE professionals are found at either extreme noted by Lorenz. Rather, an effective HSE manager will be part philosopher (well-rounded in all subject materials), part technocrat (critical thinking and expertise in certain areas), part pragmatist (experienced and solution oriented) and part psychologist (dealing with people - workers and management).
I fear that this pattern of diluting the profession with additional responsibilities and with no concurrent increase in resources will not end well. Perhaps it is time to rethink the alphabet soupization of the HSE profession!
Thanks for reading. Keep safe. Be healthy. Respect your environment.
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