Monday, May 05, 2008

When Compliance is not enough...

Recent industrial accidents have been in the news: an International Paper plant explosion in Mississippi, and in February, another explosion at the Imperial Sugar plant in Port Wentworth GA (link).

When thinking about 'sustainability', it would seem that governmental compliance needs to be adhered to, first and foremost. Compliance in most cases is performed as result of required regulations by EPA, OSHA, and state government groups, for these two cases. But what happens when a facility (or warehouse or distributor) is in compliance, but an accident of this magnitude still occurs?

As reported by the Wall Street Journal earlier this week in their article "Dust Cloud Settles Over Industries", there was a significant dust problem at the Imperial Sugar plant, and questions were raised by outside experts as well as those in OSHA as to how effective cleaning procedures were. In this case, the plant had been cited for numerous violations in the past, but as one inspector put it, they probably did not know the severity of their own dust problems:

"They don't see it, they don't clean it, because they don't realize the hazard is there," says John Vorderbrueggen, lead investigator for the blast at the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, a federal agency that probes chemical accidents. "I wouldn't call it negligence. I'm sure any company, if they had an awareness that a hazard existed, they would take corrective action. So it's really an ignorance issue." (Wall St. Journal)

OSHA regulations may not have been sufficient, according to a member of their own safety board:

"OSHA has a 'gotcha' approach," says Stephen Selk, investigations manager for the safety board. "They look hard and creatively to identify sometimes arcane interpretations of rules that were broken. We're suggesting to OSHA that they don't offer clear guidance. They don't tell industry the things to do to prevent a disaster like this." (Wall St. Journal)

And this is where I started thinking about 'sustainability' versus compliance.

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It remains to be seen whether Imperial Sugar and International Paper were in compliance with relevant environmental health & safety regulations. But assuming that they were, they still have incurred very high costs (financial, loss of human lives, diminished brand) as a result of these accidents. Could the implementation of a risk management or sustainability program avoided these accidents?

I think the issue here is that instead of just meeting compliance, or even adhering to a sustainability program, there is a need to monitor and optimize the processes and associated metrics of any compliance, risk management, and even sustainability program. You might be in 'compliance' with a governmental or NGO regulation, or even in compliance with your own sustainability program, but if your processes are faulty, or if you are not measuring the correct metrics, or you don't have a standard to measure the metrics.....then compliance is all for naught.

We have seen this type of problem in the supply chain, with the crisis that Mattel went through recently when it was discovered that toys were being produced by second and third tier suppliers with hazardous metals. Mattel did not have a process that was applicable for evaluating and managing this risk; they essentially had zero transparency into that part of their supply chain. Their financial 'hit' was close to $40MM, along with massive disruption of their supply chain.

These events provide ample evidence that key to any program is the accuracy of data and consistent processes to measure it; selection of appropriate metrics and ones that can be measured; and a validation process to constantly review and amend, in light of business changes, technology advances, etc. 'Sustainability' in its most basic form is then a result.

1 comment:

Alessandra said...

In Italy, we used to say that 'assuming governmental compliance, the only accident that can occur could be due to fatality...which is not measurable nor forecastable'.
So my suggestion on the subject would be that...maybe higher standards of expertise of governmental inspectors could be set and inspections could get more accurate, before granting compliance to companies...