Should E Be Separate or Combined With H&S?

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Courtesy of Richard MacLean & Associates, LLC

President Kennedy reportedly once said that he only wanted one-handed lawyers. That way they could not say, “On the one hand . . . But on the other hand . . . “ This month we explore the advantages and disadvantages of combining the staffs of all three professional disciplines—environmental, health, and safety (EH&S)— into a single, integrated organization. We will examine organizational trends and the reasons underlying the changes. Since both authors are not lawyers, we will not only explore current practice and alternatives, but will also offer our opinion. Whether your present EH&S organization is integrated or separate, this article may offer insight into making a better organization.

Over the past year, I have given a number of presentations on EH&S organizational issues. At each I ask the audience
the question raised by this month’s EH&S Advisor. The show of hands is revealing. In general, audiences with predominantly environmental professionals indicate that the respective areas should be combined, while health and safety audiences believe they should not. But even in the audiences with the strongest preference, the response is far from unanimous.

I ask this question in conjunction with other organizational questions such as, “What function do you currently report up through?” Human resources, technology, line management, legal, finance, services, engineering, or stand-alone are some of the responses. The distribution is all over the spectrum. When asked where EH&S functions should reside, again, there is no agreement.

What is troubling is not that EH&S organizational structures vary so widely,
but that EH&S professionals do not agree even amongst themselves what is best. If we can’t concisely describe what’s best, how can business management possibly know? One participant did, however, give a very revealing answer to the question on reporting: “Report up through the organization that has the most power and access to business management.” If there were ever a correct answer, this one comes closest to it.

That participant hit upon a key point: there is no right or wrong, only what does and does not work well in your company. Since companies vary tremendously, it is not surprising that organizational structures vary as well. Problems occur when managers reorganize without adequate input or evaluation. For example, company executives sometimes call upon business management consultants to restructure the entire company. These outside experts may be totally clueless when it comes to the unique demands of EH&S. For example, they may treat the EH&S staff solely as a service function, overlooking corporate governance considerations, or they may employ industry benchmark ratios to size the EH&S group, ignoring company-specific issues. Have we just hit asensitive point with the reader?

If changes are needed (or are upcoming), the first challenge is to get the key messages into business management at a high enough level and far enough in advance to make an impact. With enough preparation and access time to deliver a well-thought out business case, this can be done. But what are the messages and key issues to put forth? Some of the basics are covered in the threepart series on right-sizing organizations by this author which appeared in the May–July 1999 issues of EM. With respect to the issue at hand, it is helpful to first examine how we got to where we are today.

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