I have participated in the annual environment, health, and safety (EH&S) meetings for Fortune 500 companies where the CEO or some other top executive appears for a few minutes to hand out the safety awards or perform some similar function. The audience is thrilled and I am dismayed. Attendees tell me that these cameo appearances are one of the few times they get to see him or her in person, albeit from the distance of the podium.
Of course, if some massive EH&S problem erupts, unlimited executive time and resources suddenly become available. Sustainability professionals who support the creation of environmentally friendly products may receive extra airtime. But for the traditional EH&S professional, executive interactions are often very limited.
The managers at a few corporate EH&S departments have told me that being invisible is preferred, “out of sight and out of mind.” Business executives may only be provided with quarterly reports of a few lagging indicators, such as injury rates and notices of violations (NOVs). There is a real risk in all this: top management may lose touch with the full spectrum of what the EH&S staff contributes to the company. Contrast this level of interaction with the exposure given to operations and staff support functions; they endlessly jockey for airtime to pitch their value proposition to executives.
If things are running smoothly (i.e., recordable injuries and NOVs are stable or declining), executives may become complacent and only be interested in how EH&S resources can be utilized “more efficiently” (i.e., cut). Requests for additional essential resources never reach the top of the organization for consideration because those in the chain of command may or may not agree with or even comprehend the need, but they may fully understand upper management’s thinking on EH&S resources.