Triumvirate Environmental released its first annual State of EH&S report analyzing the direction of the environmental health and safety industry. The responses of close to 200 EHS professionals across multiple industries offered their insights on the direction of the industry for 2016 and beyond.

“The 2016 State of EH&S report shows that organizations are hard-pressed to expand their environmental health and safety staff with possible negative outlook for many of the topics we care about,” said Warren Sukernek, director of marketing at Triumvirate Environmental. “Our analysis shows that a lack of staffing and resources can limit the ability to adopt programs like sustainability and affect operational efficiency.”

The survey uncovered four major trends for 2016.

1. Safety is No. 1.

Safety was the most important trend and biggest challenge of 2016 across industries and experience levels.

One respondent elaborated that the most important concern is “maintaining EH&S visibility and the critical importance of safety and environmental compliance to the senior/executive leadership. EH&S and its functions are taking a backseat to many other programs, and is becoming dispersed and diluted.”

Another respondent commented that he or she would like to see “the training of senior management to oversee the EH&S functions and understand why it is that we do what we do.”

2. Understaffing is rampant.

Over 72 percent of EHS professionals feel their department currently is understaffed and 79 percent of EHS departments won’t be growing in 2016. Of all industries, educational institutions had the highest percentage of respondents who felt their EHS department was understaffed (82 percent).  

“The crux of the dilemma is that respondents were understaffed, tired and overworked,” said Sukernek. “Many of them, in their comments, felt like they were taken for granted.”

He suggested that one way they can leverage their limited resources is to contract out for certain services. For example, one respondent said he “hire(s) contractors for areas of expertise we might be lacking. For example, we hire first aid AED and CPR trainers for that certification. We hire off-duty firefighters for our fire extinguisher and live burn demonstration.” 

3. Regulatory compliance remains a focus.

Regulatory compliance was a close second to safety for most industries when asked about trends and challenges (aside from life sciences that put sustainability in the second spot). The majority of respondents cited constantly changing regulations and increasing fines as the reason.

One responder spoke both to the EHS understaffing/underfunding issue and to the regulatory climate: “The next election will tell us a lot about the regulatory environment, but energy and sustainability and emergency management stand to gain the lion’s share of [corporate] funding.”

4. Sustainability ranked last among listed priorities.

Sustainability was ranked least important out of seven possible initiatives for 2016 (including safety, regulatory compliance, training, waste management and disposal, cost savings and plan improvement).

“If organizations were allocating more funding, I think we’d see a greater focus on sustainability and using technology to streamline existing processes,” said Sukernek. “Simply focusing on regulatory requirements to avoid fines and preserve job security is not enough to drive future success and innovation in our industry.”

Sukernek pointed out that the more the EHS function “can be in alignment with the organization’s goals, metrics and dialogue, the more helpful it can be to the company.”

Added Sasha Laferte, research lead for State of EH&S: “Building a safe and compliant workspace is the central function of most EH&S departments. However, perspectives around environmental wellness are not being taken into account when EH&S departments are developing goals and priorities for their organizations.”

She noted the findings in the report should be a call to action “because with stagnant budgets, EH&S employees are unable to focus on new initiatives that move the needle in regards to sustainability, innovation and growth.” 

“When departments are understaffed, they want to do the things that cause them to not go over budget, to not be fined by regulatory agencies,” said Laferte. “In Europe, they’ve been focusing on sustainability longer than we have been in the United States. It’s more a part of the culture.”

What companies in the United States don’t realize, said Sukernek, is, “Sustainability is more than just reducing hazardous waste streams. It’s reducing the causes of hazardous waste streams. It’s reducing injuries. It’s reducing waste.”

A full copy of the report, The State of EH&S, can be downloaded here.