Insights from NAEM Part III: Technology, Empathy and Diversity

Highlights from the NAEM conference on EHS and sustainability featured expert knowledge on machine learning, change management and workplace diversity, all of which will be important themes in the post-pandemic world.

The EHS & Sustainability Management Forum from the National Association of EHS&S Management (NAEM) demonstrated the importance of balancing cutting-edge technology innovation with human empathy, dignity and inclusion, which will become an increasingly important theme in 2022. Here is a summary of some select sessions:

The Human Side of EHS&S

While conversations about data and digital transformation dominate the marketplace, it’s easy to neglect the needs of the humans who make up the workforce in EHS&S. The morning roundtable discussion on the human side of EHS&S explored how technology and change management need to operate hand-in-hand for organizations to find success.

The role of digital technology as both a tool and a goal was an important theme. Many participants noted that workers have very different levels of comfort with digital technology, with some being digital natives and early adopters and others being less adept with the idea of mobile devices and cloud-based applications. This was particularly evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many organizations had not yet embraced working from home. When that became a requirement during lockdowns, the disparity between the different levels of comfort with technology became apparent. In addition, some workers have experienced the fear of being micromanaged or judged on their performance because of the encroachment of digital technology into their workspace making their processes more transparent and measurable. This suspicion is a significant obstacle to managing organizational change and shifting to a digital workplace.

While technology is sometimes a catalyst for these tensions, it can also contribute to finding solutions for them. This requires a change management approach that demonstrates how technology is improving the way people do their jobs by highlighting inefficiencies that can be corrected, reducing wasted resources and looking continuously for ways to keep people safe both inside and outside the organization. Digital training that is accessible for the entire workforce, regardless of where they are or their level of comfort with technology, is a key component of this. Overall, participants agreed that compassion, empathy and forgiveness are critical components of EHS&S in the post-COVID workplace. It’s OK to experiment, OK to struggle and OK to fail sometimes. All these things are unavoidable in a world that is constantly undergoing what seems like radical shifts in priorities and risk. The critical element is to remember that the technology is there to serve the people, not the other way around, and that helping workers to embrace the benefits of digital transformation will contribute to building an effective, sustainable and resilient organization for all stakeholders.

Machine Learning and EHS

A session on the application of machine learning provided some insight into the future of EHS. The first part of the session looked at the fundamentals of how machine learning works and the opportunities it provides. Where traditional programming consists of humans inputting data and giving instructions for how to answer questions, machine learning takes in data and analyzes it over time to provide its own answers. This allows for a variety of applications relating to data classification and prediction including decision making, anomaly detection, resource planning and market segmentation.

Machine learning provides remarkable opportunities to transform the practice of EHS. It can work with visual data to provide more accurate ergonomic assessments, analyze language from incident descriptions to uncover leading indicators that can be used to initiative preventive actions and analyze regulatory documents to highlight compliance responsibilities.

Understanding Risk

The COVID-19 pandemic has made risk mitigation a popular topic for many organizations. This session brought together experienced risk professionals to explore the fundamentals of the risk assessment process. While many people assume they understand risk, risk assessment is about more than simply meeting legal requirements and shielding an organization from financial damage. It’s also an ethical responsibility to protect the environment and all stakeholders, including the people who work in the organization and the community within which the organization operates.

The discussion of the risk assessment process began with heat maps as a critical tool for identifying hazards and activities at both the organizational and department levels that could cause fatalities or public harm. Other tools such as hierarchy of controls, FMEA (Failure Mode and Effects Analysis), SWIFT (Structured What If Technique) and process hazard analysis can then be applied to more specific EHS topics, a step that requires the contributions of subject matter experts.

The SODM (Strength of Defense Matrix) helps to analyze the strength of defenses against risks by eliminating and preventing hazards, catching errors, detecting defects and mitigating harm. These defenses include engineering defenses, administrative defenses, management oversight, PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) and cultural defenses that reflect the attitudes towards safety in the workplace. These techniques can be applied at the facility level to determine high, medium and low risk. Facilities can then use any identified gaps to evaluate EHS resources and plan critical infrastructure requirements.

Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace

The conference closed with a discussion of the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, which is a priority principle of ESG. There is a considerable body of research that demonstrates diversity is the key to organizational success. Some research suggests that inclusive companies that demonstrate diversity of workers according to age, ethnicity and gender outperform non-inclusive companies 8:1. While the vast majority of employees say they want to work in an inclusive environment, an equally high number of organizations have not established plans and targets to meet that desire.

Diverse and inclusive environments have tangible impacts on the success of the organization. Lab studies have demonstrated conclusively that groups with diverse backgrounds and experiences are less likely to conform and converge around similar opinions and biases. This can have a critical impact on problem solving, as a diverse group is much better at spotting mistakes. Disrupting conformity and seeing things from different perspectives has a positive impact on innovation and decision making, which benefits the strategy and success of the organization.

Even when organizations have achieved the goal of diversity in the workplace, it’s still common for leaders to derail progress by neglecting inclusion in everyday work. Leaders can incorporate the unique contributions of a diverse team by redesigning meetings to feature planned questions and discussions that reward dissention and avoid reinforcing biases towards established approaches to solving problems. Employee development, including stretch goals and setting a timeline for advancement, is a particularly important element of fostering an inclusive workplace.

Mentoring relationships have a significant role to play but are also potential weak points in creating a diverse and inclusive workplace. Generational divides and gender biases continue to hinder mentor relationships, with mentoring from senior leaders—while well-intentioned—sometimes reinforcing existing problems. Overall, despite the fact that there is still significant work to do in creating workplaces that are optimally diverse and inclusive, there are positive signs of good intentions and efforts being made to achieve that goal.

Final Word

ESG and its supporting activities like EHS, quality and risk management are in a constant state of development. The COVID-19 pandemic has seemingly provided a catalyst to the themes of climate change, social justice and equity of opportunity, ethical governance and supply chain disruption that are the focus of many current discussions. The NAEM conference on EHS&S brought together some of the people who are at the forefront of meeting those challenges, providing an opportunity for those at the beginning of their ESG journey to learn the best practices and potential pitfalls they are likely to encounter in 2022. With the rapid pace of societal change, one can only imagine what challenges and opportunities we will be discussing at next year’s conference.

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