According to the Mayans, the world was going to end 12-21-12. If you're reading this – and I'm fairly confident that you will be since it's 12-21-12 in parts of the world right now and I haven't heard anything about New Zealand disappearing from the face of the earth – the world didn't end.  So, what are we going to do with this reprieve?

We could party like it's 1999, but that's so – well – 1999. I suggest that instead, we have a conversation about proving the value of EHS.

On page 25, you can read what nine EHS leaders think will be the greatest challenges and opportunities in the coming year. Their concerns range from the very basic – ensuring there are enough EHS professionals to meet a growing demand for that skill set – to the lofty – becoming a part of the team that is taking on value creation for your business.

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The underlying theme to all of the interviews was the importance of showing value to the business. Unfortunately, for many companies, it's not enough to value safety because it's the right thing to do anymore. For those businesses, the safety function has to show value in dollars and cents.

The Economy's Impact on EHS

Our panel admitted real concern about the economy, and its continuing impact on production and workloads. "EHS professionals will have to develop creative strategies how to continue to protect workers and foster the safest work environment possible with limited or decreased resources and financial support," says Darryl C. Hill, Ph.D., CSP, who is vice president, safety & health, at ABB Inc.

"The economic uncertainty and associated business forecasts will foster an environment where many EHS professionals and workers will have multiple roles and responsibilities while being expected to produce the same (or better) results with potentially less resources," he adds.

"The idea of ‘doing more with less' means that workers are pushed to spend more time on the job because of fewer employees," agrees Aaron Trippler; director, government affairs, American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA). "More time on the job means more exhaustion, which may translate into more injuries.  And let's face it, the economic health of the United States and the rest of the world will determine how much gets done in EHS."

As with most things, it comes down to money, or, as one presidential campaign aide famously said a few years ago: "It's the economy,  stupid."

Employers who are more concerned than ever about the bottom line offer additional opportunities for EHS professionals to prove value, says Dr. Richard D. Fulwiler, president of Technology Leadership Associates. He suggests that EHS professionals demonstrate that EHS can be the critical first step in achieving functional excellence across other key functional areas such as cost, productivity, quality and employee relations. According to Fulwiler, EHS still is practiced on a transactional basis too often  – for example, having OSHA compliance as an end goal – and that achieves only average results.

"Identify the specific strategic objectives of the enterprise and link [your] projects, systems or programs clearly with those enterprise strategic objectives," suggests Fulwiler. "Then communicate to senior management how this linkage will drive the enterprise's success in achieving their strategic objectives. If the EHS pros can't link their important work with the enterprises important work they should plan on being outsourced – not a pleasant thought."

Fay Feeney, CSP, ARM, is CEO of Risk for Good, advising CEOs and their boards of directors on how to lead their businesses to profitable outcomes for shareowners. Feeney, who knows better than anyone how to communicate at the C-level, suggests EHS professionals talk to their management teams about "how EHS contributes to business success. Allocating time, money and resources in EHS is a great investment in the business, people and the communities in which they operate.  We can and should hold ourselves accountable for making EHS investments a business priority."