Like Free-Range Chickens, Worker Safety a Sustainability Factor

By Bruce Rolfsen

Workplace safety must be a factor when deciding whether an employer or product meets “sustainability” guidelines, OSHA says in a Dec. 20 white paper.

In practice, “the sustainability movement has focused more on environmental concerns, leaving key social and workplace considerations, such as [occupational safety and health], behind,” the Occupational Safety and Health Administration report says.

“The poultry supply chain, no matter how well free-range chickens are treated, cannot be sustainable when workers endure crippling musculoskeletal disorders while processing those chickens,” the report says.

Sustainability describes employers’ efforts to preserve economic, societal and environment systems and not exhaust them. That goal has produced such practices as reducing building power demands and using materials that aren’t from endangered rain forests.

The white paper is part of OSHA’s campaign encouraging employers to improve their workplace safety and health practices without OSHA threatening new regulations or enforcement actions. In October, the agency released guidelines businesses can use to setup injury and illness prevention programs.

Sustaining Support

OSHA’s stance has the backing of sustainability advocates.

At the American Sustainable Business Council, policy director Bryan McGannon, said safety and health practices should be a part of overall personnel practices. In addition to providing a safe workplace, sustainability includes such benefits as good pay and paid leave, McGannon told Bloomberg BNA Dec. 20.

Nancy McGaw, deputy director of the Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program, told Bloomberg BNA Dec.20, that OSHA was correct to highlight the need for paying more attention to safety issues related to sustainability.

The Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association’s consensus sustainability standard (ANSI/BIFMA e3) has a “social impacts” section outlining expectations for manufacturing safety and health, the association’s head of advocacy and sustainability, Brad Miller, told Bloomberg BNA Dec. 20.

Recommended Actions

OSHA’s report recommends several actions advocates for protecting workers can take, including:

  •  building a business case that poor workplace safety practices damage employers’ profitability and increase risks for investors,
  •  determining whether business performance measurements include worker safety and health factors,
  •  highlighting leaders successfully melding worker safety into sustainability efforts and
  •  increasing the conversation between workplace advocates and people with different sustainability focuses.
OSHA also encourages companies purchasing products and services to review the safety and health performance of their providers.

It’s a practice already supported by the Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council.

“When procurement does not take working conditions into consideration, the lowest cost vendor will often be one who is willing to sacrifice the health of their workers and the welfare of the families that depend on those workers,” Sam Hummel, the council’s director of outreach and operations, told Bloomberg BNA Dec. 20.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bruce Rolfsen in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at

For More Information

The white paper, "Sustainability in the Workplace," is available at

OSHA's sustainability website is available at

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