Book review: Business, Environment, and Society – Themes and Cases

Book coverAustralia’s Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program (HIP) spent a great deal of time looking at the design of what started as an environmental initiative delivered in one way to an economic stimulus package delivered another way.  The HIP, and the people working with it, struggled to accommodate these changes.  A new book from Baywood Publishing in the United States, coincidentally, looks at the growth in ‘green jobs” and, among many issues, discusses how such jobs can affect worker health.

In “Business, Environment, and Society – Themes and CasesVesela R Veleva writes

“Green jobs, however, are not necessarily safe jobs, and, any of the current green technologies pose significant health and safety risks to workers.  A life-cycle approach and greater emphasis on worker health and safety is necessary when promoting future policies and practices. (Page 7)

The advantage of looking at the HIP inquiries as green jobs is that it provides a broader, even global, context to the scheme. Veleva writes:

“While there is no universally accepted definition of a green job, several organisations have proposed working definitions.  The United Nations Environmental Program defines a green job as “work in agriculture, manufacturing, research and development, administrative and service activities that contribute substantially to preserving and restoring environmental quality”…. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics defines green jobs as jobs involved in producing green products and services and increasing the use of clean energy, energy efficiency and mitigating negative impacts on the environment…” (page 9)

The work undertaken under the Home Insulation Program certainly seems to fit these definitions and, as such, may help in interpreting the motivations of some of the program’s decision-makers.

The book reflects the prominence given to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in the US but the author is well aware that transformation in environmental standards and expectations does not exist in a vacuum.  Such changes have, in some senses, changed slowly.  In one of the Forewords Mark Buckley of Staples Inc writes that the impediment to progress has been language, something that also has impeded the growth and acceptance of occupational health and safety (OHS) in some areas.  Buckley writes:

 “It is critical that there be a common language or vernacular and accepted standards to effectively measure sustainability.  These indicators help establish base line performance and set goals and targets for improvement, first within individual companies and then most importantly across interdependent global supply chains.” (page vi)

Veleva believes that as sustainability has evolved over the last twenty years, the areas of sustainable consumption and OHS have been neglected by the sustainability advocates (page 2).  She writes

“Protecting workers  from toxic chemicals and work-related injuries and illness is not just an issue of developing countries such as China and Bangladesh…….  Those concerned with the environment tend to focus too narrowly on environmental issues such as climate change, water pollution, and biodiversity loss, but have often failed to implement a systems approach to teaching, analysing, and addressing major problems today.  The result is often shifting risks between different stakeholders.  Too frequently it is workers who bear the brunt of these problems.  Many clean energy sectors are promoted as “green”, even though workers are exposed to highly toxic chemicals.  (page 2 – page 3, emphasis added)

The deaths of four workers installing home insulation in Australia may not be the scenario Veleva intended but they fit just as much as workers being exposed to toxic fumes in the production of iPhones.

Veleva advocates the development of a “conscious capitalism“.  She writes

“The time has come to create a new, more “conscious capitalism,” based on systems thinking, environmental protection, regenerative ownership, and steady-state economy that focuses on human well-being and long-term sustainability.” (page 3) [not sure what regenerative ownership is, Ed]

There have been many variations proposed for capitalism, principally from an acceptance that capitalism is here to stay.  Humanistic capitalism and natural capitalism are two that the SafetyAtWorkBlog has mentioned previously.

Veleva intends, through this book, to  look at the practices of business that is:

“…a key player in achieving a more sustainable development, yet its practices are often narrow in focus or short-sighted…” (page 4) and asks

“Should a product or service be called “green” when it puts at risk the health and safety of workers?” (page 4)

The author expands on this question by referencing the hazards of crystalline silica, tetrachloride and other hazardous materials, and a range of hazardous production techniques, including waste management and recycling.

A further overlap between environmental health and safety and occupational health and safety is mentioned in relation to a 2009 Making Green Jobs Safe workshop where

:…experts emphasises Prevention through Design (PtD) as the most effective approach to risk reduction in the various green jobs.” (page 26)

The sense of the Prevention through Design approach echoes Safety in Design.  That both these approaches struggle for acceptance perhaps indicates the significance of the approach given that substantial structural or cultural change always takes time and needs considerable advocacy and evidence to succeed.  Veleva quotes the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, David Michaels:

“It is vital, now, that we integrate worker safety and health concerns into green manufacturing, green construction and green energy.  Most importantly: We must push worker health and safety as a critical, necessary, and recognized element of green design, green lifecycle analysis and green contracts.” (page 26)

The book continues to discuss the business case for environment health and safety with, significantly, detailed case studies of several American businesses.  The case studies touch briefly on worker OHS issues but this was never intended as the principal element of the book.

One of the attractions of this book is that, even though it is an American publication, the environmental standpoint encourages analysis of initiatives in the European Union and elsewhere.  This global perspective is less evident in the OHS discipline and, if OHS advocates want a global spread they may need to build on the pathways established by the environmental movement.  The global environmental threats outweigh the arguments for worker health by the fact that a global threat is indiscriminate.

It is unlikely that Australia will ever see a green jobs creation scheme like the Home Insulation Program for various economic and political reasons but Veleva’s book provides a perspective that will make it very difficult for any such scheme to be developed without consideration for worker health and safety in the manufacturing processes of sustainable, green products and services.  It contributes to a state of knowledge that lifts the bar on corporate governance and due diligence in a sector that will become increasingly important and influential.

Kevin Jones

Baywood Publishing provided SafetyAtWorkBlog with a review copy of “Business, Environment, and Society – Themes and Cases

Categories business, climate change, continuity, economics, environment, government, human rights, OHS, research, safety, Uncategorized

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