This week has been all about “R-I-S-K”. Risk that my three flights around the globe to South Africa will be on time. Risk that my luggage will accompany me. Risk that I will meet my driver. Risk that he will be a safe driver, negotiating darkness and harrowing roads full of heavy trucks travelling between Durban and Johannesburg. Risk that my digestive system can handle all the amazing foods I’ll sample while at the NOSA-sponsored NOSHCON 11 conference. Risk that my talk on integrated sustainability management systems will go off without a hitch.
Risk (noun): A situation involving exposure to danger
Risk (verb): to expose to danger or loss
The Setting Tells a Story- “From Stone Age to Hard Won Democracy”
Risk. We all live with risk and all are in position to control and influence its outcome. This week’s conference was devoted to exploring risk in the workplace and its related effects on worker safety, health and environmental impact. South Africa is the perfect place to explore this issue, because of all of the social, political, economic and workplace/environmental challenges that this special country has endured over the generations. Throughout the two-day conference I have become painfully aware of the risks that exist amid the beauty of the KwaZulu Natal and Central Drakensberg region of South Africa.
This great place of beauty has seen wars fought over land and water for thousands of years and countless generations, between indigenous tribes first, then between the Zulu and the Dutch Afrikaners, then the British and Boers and finally blacks and whites through the practice of “apartheid”. This place has seen the likes of King Shaka, Gandhi and Mandela walking its ground. This is historic ground where people took incredible risks to protect what they believed in, and suffered enormous costs and joyous victories. I won’t use this space to opine on that matter just to say that issues run deep and wounds take generations to heal. But all citizens of the Rainbow Nation are trying their very best to level the playing field. But all along the way, all the players in this real life drama have had to manage risk.
To illustrate how risk is all around us in the workplace and at home, NOSHCON brought out the snakes…yes, snakes. Not the safe variety…I mean the pythons and puff adders. Through a safety company called Unplugged Communications, the idea of “ Snakes for Safety” was presented to a fascinated, but somewhat skittish audience of 600. The analogy is that puff adders are like accidents waiting to happen…they hide, camouflaged in the bush and only strike when you are right on top of them. By then the damage has been done, injury’s result (and it the case of the puff adder, you have seven minutes to call a loved one and say goodbye!). Cobras on the other hand represent a hazard that is harmless when small, but if left unchecked, the hazards can grow to an unmanageable point when great harm can occur. Snakes. Risk. Managing the basics of health, safety and the environment (HSE) in developing economies like South Africa is foremost in businesses minds and correctly so.
Risk Management and Meeting Basic HSE Needs First
“There are risks and costs to every program of action. But they are far less than the risk and costs of comfortable inaction”- John F Kennedy
Last year I wrote a two piece series on risk management and accountability in the aftermath of the BP gulf oil spill and Massey coal mining disaster. In the second post on risk, I noted that a continuous risk management process helps organizations understand, manage, and communicate risk and avoid potential catastrophic conditions that can lead to loss of life, property and the environment. Briefly, risk management helps organizations:
- Identify critical and non-critical risks
- Document each risk in-depth
- Log all risks and notify management of their severity
- Take action to reduce the likelihood of risks occurring
- Reduce the impact on business, life, and the environment
In this post I laid out a typical six-step process to achieve effective risk management and failure mode control. I also noted ”What will be … fascinating will be the lessons learned and if businesses truly embrace risk management planning and implementation as a central function of business, take it seriously and hold themselves accountable.”
Takeaways from Far Away- Sustainability May Have to Wait
My talk focused on integrated management systems and how they can leverage risk and liability and support sustainability in the business marketplace. The audience was attentive to be sure, and I listened and observed NOSHCON delegates listen to several other fantastic presentations on corporate social responsibility, carbon management and sustainability. My impression however is that while there are pockets of excellence in sustainability focused companies, South African businesses are just beginning to think about sustainability as a value-added aspect of their businesses. Perhaps rightly so, many companies in the mining, agricultural and heavy industry sectors continue (especially the majority small to medium-sized and under-resource companies) are focusing on the basic critical issues of life safety in the workplace, education and meeting basic environmental compliance operations first. To meet this pressing need, organizations like NOSA have developed world-class frameworks of occupational, health, safety and environmental risk management. And despite rampant complaints of lax enforcement of labor and environmental protection laws, the South African government has implemented its King III corporate governance policies (similar to the U.S Sarbanes-Oxley provisions) that recognize CSR and reporting obligations.
I am firmly of the belief that companies must take care of these basic HSE issues and lay a firm foundational framework for continual improvement first before they can progress along the sustainability journey. The central themes I heard about how this can be accomplished are through increasing monitoring, education, awareness building, management accountability and trust. Regarding sustainability, it makes little sense force feeding a business approach that has little immediate bearing on managing organizations immediate risks. One must be able to manage the snakes; you know….one by one and step by cautious step.
Be patient South Africa. You have such great resources, professionals hungry to learn, and have fantastic opportunities to excel in the sustainability space in the years ahead. I have been truly blessed and humbled to have been able to participate at NOSHCON and hope to be able to hear of great things coming out of South Africa in the coming years.
“Baie Dankie”. “Ngiyabonga kakhulu”. Thanks very much!