Last reviewed 24 July 2013

You already have an SMS (safety management system) and you’re considering an EMS (Environment Management System) — but should you go for an IMS (Integrated Management System)? Paul Smith believes the similarities between health and safety management and environment management are greater than the differences, but what are the business benefits of an integrated approach?

Although safety management and environment management have very different historical backgrounds, the two areas actually have much in common. It can be said that safety is about saving people while environment is about saving the planet, and neither is much good without the other!

Drivers

The basic drivers for safety management and environment management are the same, with the two areas sharing the same three imperatives.

  1. Moral: safeguarding people and the environment is the “right” thing to do.

  2. Legal: both areas are highly regulated and the organisation that does not comply faces the risk of legal action in both the criminal and civil courts, with all that entails in terms of costs and adverse publicity.

  3. Commercial: effective management of both safety and the environment makes good business sense.

Not only are the drivers for effective management essentially the same, but also the ways of achieving effective management are very similar.

Managing the risk

The current model given in HSG65 Successful Health and Safety Management from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) (policy, organising, planning, measuring performance, auditing and review) is moving to a “Plan, Do, Check, Act” approach, but both can be used to manage environmental issues just as much as health and safety concerns. It is a management framework, and not specific to health and safety at all.

The methodology of environmental impact assessment is (with a couple of minor tweaks of terminology) the same as doing a risk assessment for health and safety purposes. In both cases, we are interested in identifying what can go wrong and making sure that we have the right physical and systems controls in place to minimise the risk.

Having made our assessment, when we move on to select control measures, both safety and environment use an essentially similar hierarchy of control, in which elimination of the risk at source is the preferred option and some sort of risk reduction the next best thing. While the detail may differ, the key principles of both control hierarchies are the same. In both cases, contingency planning is needed to minimise the likelihood of incidents, and to deal with them effectively should they occur, and in both cases assessment and control (risk management) need to include both normal, everyday operation as well as what to do when things go wrong.

Different aspects of the same

On a practical note, many everyday workplace issues cut across both areas. If using a solvent-based paint, for example, the solvents will create a health and safety issue to the people in the workplace, both from the point of view of fire risk and inhalation of, and skin contact with, the harmful materials. But just extracting those fumes with local exhaust ventilation and pushing them out into the environment is a problem too. This is a good example of the hierarchy of control approach in both safety and environment. We have seen the widespread elimination of solvent based paints and their replacement by water-based materials. And we have seen this technology bring both health/safety and environmental benefits across the board, from large-scale use of paints in the car industry down to the domestic level where you can typically now clean your paint brushes by running them under a warm tap!

Other good examples are noise and spillage. A noisy process puts workers’ hearing at risk and also (even though the levels of concern are much lower) creates a potential nuisance noise issue with local residents and neighbours. Uncontained spillage exposes employees to a health and safety risk as well as well as creating an environmental risk from land and water contamination.

Why companies do not take an integrated view

With so much in common, it is perhaps surprising that companies have only comparatively recently discovered the attractions of integrated health, safety and environment management systems. One fundamental reason why they have not is, of course, people.

Those advising on health and safety may well be different from those advising on environmental issues and, even where the two disciplines are combined, many practitioners will typically have a background in one or the other. As a result, there is a risk of “leaning” towards one subject rather than the other — usually the one where our comfort levels are higher. There is a danger that as specialists we can be precious about our own areas and can overtly or subconsciously project the view that nothing else is as important.

As an example, a safety specialist from a different part of our organisation once carried out a safety audit of a particular operating unit. The specialist concluded that our main risk was manual handling. We later found out that he had not really understood the process we carried out in this unit, but he did have a lot of experience of solving ergonomic issues, so it was on that basis that he recommended handling as the priority. To be fair, there were some handling problems that we needed to address, and we took his advice on board. But I was not the only manager to conclude that his view of the priority was more a reflection of his own background than of the risks he had seen in our operation.

Benefits

So what are the benefits of combining health and safety and environment in an integrated approach?

  • It saves time and money in implementation, there is so much in common between the two areas that it must make sense to combine forces and avoid duplication in areas such as systems, procedures, risk assessment and training.

  • It helps managers to adopt an approach in which they are enabled to manage a broad spectrum of risk and not a series of apparently separate issues, each with its own legislation and specialist terminology. Do not underestimate the value of carrying out one set of training with a common vocabulary to cover both areas.

  • The common ground and potential synergies between the two areas should ultimately lead to more effective control of risk than if the areas are managed in isolation.

  • It should avoid the situation experienced in some large companies where managers complain they are being told one thing by the safety advisor and another by the environmental advisor – even where both advisors work for the same function.

Conclusion

Ultimately, what is best (to integrate or to separate) will depend on the specific circumstances and risk profile of your organisation. I believe that we will achieve the best outcome if we help managers manage risk, whatever the risk may be, rather than impose on them artificial boundaries based on our own specialisations.

Paul Smith is a Fellow of IOSH and a Chartered Health and Safety Practitioner with many years’ experience of implementing management systems. He is a former HSE Inspector and is now a member of the Setters coaching community.