Insights from NAEM 2021 Part 1: Communication and Innovation at the Intersection of EHS and ESG

The NAEM 2021 EHS and Sustainability Management Forum was the place to be for EHS practitioners last week. For those who weren't able to be there, we have summaries from some of the sessions to help you learn about the impact of ESG and the evolution of EHS.
The NAEM 2021 EHS and Sustainability Management Forum was the place to be for EHS practitioners last week. For those who weren’t able to be there, we have summaries from some of the sessions to help you learn about the impact of ESG and the evolution of EHS.

The National Association for EHS&S Management (NAEM) held its EHS & Sustainability Management Forum online from October 19-21. Subject matter experts from industry and academia, along with leading EHS and ESG vendors, reviewed recent EHS&S developments from the past year and provided a preview of what to expect in 2022 as ESG begins to take center stage for many organizations. While interest in ESG has advanced steadily over the last few years, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought it into greater focus as the world looks to avert the climate crisis while strengthening global resiliency and augmenting the social benefits of capitalism. This blog series will provide some highlights from select sessions each day.

Communicating With Impact

Discussions about EHS and sustainability often focus on the importance of data, reporting and analytics. For health and safety, this often means identifying leading and lagging indicators and trends that can help prevent accidents before they happen, as well as fulfilling compliance obligations to regulators. For ESG (environmental, social and governance), it means providing disclosures for investors and ratings agencies to determine investment value and stakeholder expectations.

Very often, however, many organizations simply don’t understand the importance of communication between humans. As the speakers of the session Communicating with Impact pointed out, “every intervention designed to promote a safe workplace and consider the person at the center of the risk management cycle can be undermined by the quality of the communications.” This is especially true in risk communications, in which organizations must quickly determine the communications that are required to respond to the crisis and reduce harm.

The panel discussed three infamous incidents in which poor communications cost billions of dollars in damage and, most significantly, resulted in human tragedy.

The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986 demonstrates how ambiguous terminology and the reluctance to deliver bad news to management led to the loss of seven lives. Engineers had expressed concern about the O-rings that sealed the fuel lines of the booster rockets—the root cause of the disaster—at least a year prior to the launch, stating that they failed to perform their function consistently at degrees lower than 50F. Yet a series of memos and personal conversations with NASA officials failed to express the critical urgency of their analysis. Instead of communicating the imminent danger of launching, the messages from the engineers gave the impression that the failure of the O-rings was not important enough to postpone the launch.

As a result, management was able to interpret the ambiguous messages in a way that confirmed their existing bias in favor of proceeding with the launch. On January 28, the day of the launch, the air temperature was 26F, far below the lowest recorded temperature at which the O-rings had failed. At 11:39 am, 73 seconds after takeoff, a fuel leak originating with the failed O-rings caused an explosion in the solid rocket booster (SRB). The explosion broke the orbiter into several pieces at 46,000 feet, killing everyone on board.

The Chicago flood in 1992 provides an example of how a lack of plain language for a non-specialist audience led to critical communication errors. The city of Chicago has an extensive series of tunnels underneath the city that were used to transport coal directly to the basements of businesses until the 1950s. When coal became redundant, the tunnels were rented to cable companies to run electronics and communications services. Over time, city officials forgot the tunnels were there. In 1991 and 1992, construction projects compromised the integrity of the tunnels and allowed water from the river to enter.

A cable company technician noticed the damage during a routine inspection of the tunnels and brought it to the attention of city officials. An engineering report concluded that the tunnels needed to be repaired immediately but muffled the immediacy of the message by using overly technical language for city officials with no engineering experience. Instead of beginning immediate repairs, the city began a lengthy RFP process to solicit bids for gradual repair. On April 13, the tunnel ruptured, and water poured into basements and subways, with some businesses receiving over 40 feet of water in their lower floors. The costs for cleaning and managing legal challenges was nearly $2B.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster killed 11 workers, injured dozens more and created one of the worst environmental maritime disasters in history. Deepwater Horizon was a drilling rig being used to prepare the Macondo Prospect in the Gulf of Mexico for petroleum extraction. During drilling, the Deepwater Horizon crew experienced a number of significant problems related to the cementing process that was used to reinforce the integrity of the well, including serious equipment supply problems that required engineers to revise the process extensively. This resulted in a series of kicks, in which petroleum and mud worked their way up the drilling equipment and created imminent danger of spills or explosions. While engineers and workers were aware of the dangers, most of the communications between the primary stakeholders—BP, Transocean and Haliburton—consisted of extended, casual email chains in which colloquial language obscured the urgency of the technical messages that pointed to serious risk.

Management made critical decisions about safety without a complete understanding of the details. On April 20, 2010, a series of technical failures sent a potent brew of oil and mud spewing onto the deck of the Deepwater Horizon. The resulting explosion engulfed the platform and burned out of control until it sank on April 22. The ruptured well released 210 million gallons of oil into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico over the course 87 days.

The lesson of these infamous case studies is that it is essential to define the goal of your communications by understanding your audience and clearly articulating the change you need to initiate. Attendees learned about critical elements of communication such as developing a SOCO (Single Overarching Communications Outcome), understanding the audience and defining targeted messaging.

EHS Innovation Showcase

The session on EHS innovation and technology explored the speed with which many businesses have had to adopt new EHS technology, the extent to which the pace of adoption is increasing and the opportunities that exist for companies willing to embrace innovation.

The buy vs build debate is still going strong, as many organizations are developing internal technology solutions, such as drones and digital twins, to meet their own needs. Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technology is also becoming popular as a way of conducting training that can’t take place on site or in the field, as well as training for site-specific incidents like workplace violence. With the pandemic set to have an impact on the workplace for some time to come, the importance of technology that can assist with remote auditing has also become a critical priority.

The Internet of Things (IoT) and mobile technology are revolutionizing the field of EHS, as they facilitate a constant stream of data for safety management systems to use for tracking incidents and managing reporting and compliance obligations. Wearables and exoskeletons are also becoming critical components for collecting ergonomic data from individual workers. Overall, many of the technology applications that were considered revolutionary and cutting edge only a few years ago are now part of everyday business processes.

Technology adoption, however, is more challenging than simply purchasing or building it. Many organizations struggle to understand where to start their journey. While many want to reach the stage of collecting data and using analytics to uncover trends and leading indicators, technology adoption efforts can be quickly undone in the early stages by failing to incorporate change management to assist with adoption throughout the organization. Panelists agreed on the importance of having IT departments engaged early to help with discovery of existing systems, creation of a digital strategy and systems integration.

Overall, these two sessions provided an excellent overview of the two critical pillars for the evolution of EHS and ESG: human interaction and technology adoption. While technology adoption will play an important role in the evolution of data and analytics, EHS and ESG will continue to rely on human judgement and expertise. We will explore these themes further in upcoming blogs from the conference.

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