I’ve been associated with the environmental consulting sector since the 1980s and more generally with HSE consulting and management for the last twenty years. Over the last couple of decades, I have noticed a steady, albeit subtle, decline in awareness and interest from both the corporate and public perspective in environmental issues (and I also believe this extends to many worker health and safety issues). As an example, when I first started to travel to Asia in the mid 1990s, environmental issues were front and centre in the daily newspapers. Today, these articles are more often than not buried in the back pages, if covered at all. Similarly, it seems to me that there is now less interest by clients in in implementing/improving corporate HSE management systems than there was 15-20 years ago, probably a reflection of tightening corporate budgets.
In this short blog post, I explore some simple data and published literature in an attempt to assess whether my perception is real or rather biased as a reflection of me getting older, grumpier and more pessimistic!
Google Trends’ Explore is a simple, albeit powerful tool that can be used as a starting point to investigate this issue. Google Explore allows one to assess time and geographical trends of keywords used in Google Search. For instance, enter keywords relevant to HSE into Explore (e.g., safety, health, environment, pollution, ISO14001, etc.) and out pops a wealth of information on geographic and temporal trends related to their use in Google Search.
The results were both fascinating and disappointing! There are clear trends in HSE-related keywords use over time. Unfortunately, these trends show a decline from 2004 to today in searches for the generic HSE keywords - health, safety and environment:This trend is consistent even when we drill down into more specific keywords, such as occupational health, occupational safety, pollution control, construction safety and hazardous waste:The same trends hold true for keywords such as ISO18001, ISO14001, safety plan, security plan and many other related keywords that I tested. Unfortunately, this does support my perception stated earlier that we are losing interest in HSE!
I am not the first one to identify this apparent decline in environmental interest. In fact, in 2013 Mccallum and Bury published a paper using Google search data from 2001 to 2009 and concluded that "Public interest in most aspects of the environment is sharply declining relative to other subjects". I could not find any comparable studies for occupational health and safety issues but expect that someone somewhere has done this also, probably with similar results.
But what about the biggest environmental issue we face today - global warming/climate change? Surely one would expect an increase in searches of related terms particularly in the last year or so as a result of the huge amount of publicity following the 2015 Paris Agreement and the many news reports of monthly temperature records, e.g., NOAA data indicating that May 2016 marked the 13th consecutive month a monthly global temperature record had been broken—the longest such streak since global temperature records began in 1880. Alas, instead of an upward trend,searches of related keywords sustainability, climate change, renewable energy and global warming have declined over the last decade after reaching a peak in 2007:
The results above are indicative of worldwide data. This means that they will be heavily skewed towards the main users of Google Search - US, Europe, etc. So, I also investigated if these same trends occurred in selected Asian countries, ones representing a broad range of socio-economic conditions across the continent - Japan, China, Thailand, India, Kazakhstan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. With one very obvious exception, the results are consistent with the global trends of declining search interest over time (note: blue- health; red - safety; yellow - environment):
Most interestingly, the country that is most often maligned in the west for poor HSE performance, namely China, is the only one of these countries with an obvious increase in the use of these search terms over the last decade. These results also hold when we drill down into the more specific HSE keywords discussed above.
Is this observed trend in these China data genuine, truly representing an increase in HSE awareness over time, or is this some sort of data artifact - after all Google in not widely used in China? Based on other published studies, it does appears that these trends are real and not artifacts. For instance, there are published reports by academics using other types of data that have come to similar conclusions of increased environmental awareness in China over the last decade, e.g., Yan et al's 2012 study of trends in public environmental awareness in Shanghai and Guo and Marinova's 2011 study using data from across China. I could not find comparable academic studies for worker health or safety awareness in China, but I would not be surprised if the observed increasing awareness of these issues is also real.
Why is China an exception to the waning interest in HSE issues? That is a great question. I have no firm answer but expect it is a combination of social, economic and regulatory factors. I would definitely be interested in hearing from my colleagues in China for your thoughts on these trends. Regardless of the cause and given the size and growth of the Chinese economy, the fact that HSE awareness appears to be growing in China is certainly a positive take-home message from this blog post.
Now, if we can only get the rest of the world to follow the lead of the Chinese people!
Thanks for reading. Keep safe. Be healthy. Respect your environment.
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Photo Credits: HSE decline image courtesy of Redlog Environmental Ltd.