Safety Has Not Been Asked to Prom

Posted on by Thomas Cunningham, PhD, and Garrett Burnett, MS, MBA

a shimmering mirrored ballGreen is sexy. It’s in vogue. It gets splashed on billboards and endorsed by celebrities. Safety on the other hand? Not so much. Over the past few years, the environmental movement has picked up steam and seeped into the national consciousness. Heck, even school kids can tell you what it means to be green—and they’ll probably even throw in that it’s cool, to boot. Occupational safety has remained a niche topic, the domain of industrial hygienists, regulators, and technical experts. The only school kids discussing it are working on advanced degrees. Let’s face it: Jack Johnson hasn’t written any songs about worker safety and health.

Green and safety are both related to behavior changes that take place at national, organizational, and personal levels. They share an impetus for action. Categorically, the motivations that move nations, organizations, and people to behave in environmentally friendly ways are the same as those that encourage safe work practices.

Until recently, environmental responsibility and occupational safety have lived parallel lives. Both were disregarded, then championed and crusaded for. In 1970, both causes were given dispensation as United States government entities via the Occupational Safety and Health Act (which brought about OSHA and NIOSH) and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. In the past decade, workplace safety has obscurely toiled toward improved outcomes, whereas green has bolted into the limelight. So why is Green rolling with A-listers while Safety is at home eating ice cream directly from the carton?

Getting on board

The drivers behind the green movement noted that informational campaigns designed to raise awareness don’t change behavior. So they began pairing environmental awareness with promotions focused on goal-setting and commitment. Green has gained momentum by tackling the easiest issues first, even if those issues don’t significantly impact the most pressing problems. Recycling doesn’t stop climate change, but it is something that people can actually do, that gets them on board, that helps the movement gain traction. It enables people to say, “I’m a part of this. I’m in control.”

The one-off

Recycling is a daily event. Green promotes these types of repeated behaviors, but more important, it advocates single, one-time, efficiency actions. Buying a car that gets better mileage doesn’t require a sustained effort the way committing to use mass transit does. Green would tell you, “Get a water-saving showerhead. Then you have a sustained impact even if you refuse to sacrifice one minute of your luxurious shower.” In the safety realm, the same idea applies. A worker wouldn’t need a respirator or hearing protection if the threats had been designed out of the process in the first place. The trick is to convince decision makers that paying more today will be worth it tomorrow.

Staying positive

Positive emotional experiences influence behavior. Unfortunately safety tends to be viewed as a Debbie Downer. If you met Safety at a party, your conversation might go something like this:

You: “Whoa. Didn’t see you there, Safety. So, you know, how’s it going?”

Safety: “No one’s suffered a debilitating injury for a while, so I’ve got that going for me.” [Insert sad trombone].

Safety messages tend to focus on not getting hurt or avoiding fines. A more positive take might highlight improved health or a happier, more productive workforce. Green has managed to capitalize on the positive. For example, businesses boast – and justifiably so – that they are environmentally friendly and clean. Who doesn’t like clean?

The sustainability twofer

One of the most important places that the green movement has made headway is in the workplace.

Forward-looking companies have embraced two key insights:

  1. Investments in environmentally friendly technologies, practices, and policies are financially wise, especially over the long-term.
  2. A green company is more appealing to consumers, who now demand less packaging, cleaner manufacturing, and more responsible use of natural resources.

These two insights hold true for safety as well. In the business world, workplace safety and environmental responsibility are becoming barriers to entry, necessary components of lasting success. Investments in safe equipment and sustainable practices will provide future returns. Some of the world’s most successful companies have recognized the correlation and have merged their environmental control and safety compliance efforts under the single umbrella of sustainability.

Because of the close relationship between safe practices and environmental stewardship—their overlap in promotion and intervention—there’s no reason that safety should be left to wallflower. As many innovative organizations have proved, Safety and Green are perfect for a double date.

Dr. Cunningham is a behavioral scientist in the NIOSH Education and Information Division.

Mr. Burnett is a health communications fellow in the NIOSH Education and Information Division.

For more on this topic, see:

Cunningham, T. R., Galloway-Williams, N., & Geller, E. S. (2010). Protecting the planet and its people: How do interventions to promote environmental sustainability and occupational safety and health overlap? Journal of Safety Research , 41 (5), 407-416.

Posted on by Thomas Cunningham, PhD, and Garrett Burnett, MS, MBA

35 comments on “Safety Has Not Been Asked to Prom”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    Agree with everything you said!

    To address this very issue you speak about I with a number of ther enlightened people in Colorado are putting together a conference “Making Green Healthy and Heralthy Green” October 24, 2011. Look for confernence materials on the web soon.

    This event targets professionals from the green building, energy efficiency and environmental health fields and will showcase the need for these disciplines to work collaboratively. The event will start an open dialog among the related professions and to work toward a dual goal of making the built environment sustainable and healthy.

    I’ll let you know how this effort works out.

    Please keep working on this issue so that it’s EH&S (Environmental Health & Safety all caps!) not Eh&s in the public consciousness.

    Mike Richen, CIH
    Boulder County Public Health

    …Or Safety might just make you jealous at the reunion.

    The issue of being green carries a tremendous amount of impact with the people of the world. People expect for you to have a strong profile in the conservation movement and their spending their money with you. What your opinion is on the greeen movement needs to be on the mind on the public and your business competition

    Thanks for this post. Might you be able to provide a list of a dozen or so companies to support your statement “Some of the world’s most successful companies have recognized the correlation and have merged their environmental control and safety compliance efforts under the single umbrella of sustainability”?

    Thanks for your comment, Celeste (and for the good work you do on your blog!). We looked at a number of Fortune 500 companies and found that many have shifted to include statements about corporate social responsibility as being a core value in their mission, and point to their sustainability progress reports as evidence of their socially responsible activities. Below are examples of companies that claim to have integrated environmental and health & safety management systems under the banner of sustainability.

    ◦Cabot Corporation
    ◦Sara Lee
    ◦Lockheed Martin
    ◦General Electric

    Given that we are looking at some pretty big companies here (what we termed “successful”), we recognize that not all organizations have the resources to create entire sustainability departments or teams. But every company, no matter the size, can promote a culture of sustainability that includes worker health.

    It is good to see NIOSH taking a real interest in the environmental aspects of worker health and safety. As NIOSH move into this area, it needs to understand that the green movement does not always coincide with the promotion of environmental safety in the workplace. If fact, sometimes they directly conflict. In the efforts to promote energy efficiency by the Green Movememnt encouraging that buildings be made more airtight, the importance of fresh airflow and ventilation for occupant/worker safety was not given its proper place at the table.

    This is an excellent article on the subject, June 9, WebMD

    And a new OSHA advisory on the subject:

    Bottom line, Green is an admirable goal, but it does not always mean environmental protection for workers. Sometimes, its not easy being Green!

    Very enlightening analysis how these important topics are intertwined. Engaging people in safe behaviors is a challenge but unlike the”green” advocacy, lacks a champion to further our cause. Communications like these help to bring these sister advocacies into step with each other to help capture synergies.

    Excellent points, so excellent one thinks, “Well of course! Why didn’t it come up before?” My own company EMD prides itself on the safety of its workplace, but we don’t market ourselves on this as we do our other greenness.

    As for ventilation versus airtight buildings, that is an opportunity for innovation, not just a conflict.

    Your neighbors won’t ogle your securely-placed ladder the way they would your new hybrid car. Unless you’re Rip Hamilton, no one’s digging your protective face mask. The perceived benefit of safety has to become more firmly ensconced culturally–as you imply–before using safety equipment generates the same warm fuzzies as recycling. And also, as you mention, it needs to extend beyond individuals. Organizations need to embrace the idea of OSH as part of sustainability.

    If the mission is to take ten steps toward the goal and you only get 6 steps, at least you got over half way there. You could just throw up your hands and give up before attempting to finish, or put forth the pro-active effort and try a little harder. Changing the safety culture-one person at a time!

    This is great!!!!! Do either of you tweet? I’m @MonaEnviroSalus. I’d love to have more of this conversation there, in real-time, between regulators, policy investigators, and the practitioners.

    I almost wish hardware stores would have basic home safety or handyman safety workshops. I’d love to see it on the free-class calendar at my local big-box home improvement store, right next to “potting 101” and “frames for fun”. Bring safety down to the retail, point-of-sale level would up the profile a little, but probably not “firmly ensconce” a social safety culture.

    We agree, Mona. The point of sale is another channel for safety information with great potential. It can be one of those steps Keith mentioned in his comment (above). Some suppliers recognize the value they can offer their customers by providing relevant safety instruction. A great example is a local trenching equipment supplier who offers in-depth training (no pun intended) to his customers and their employees at no additional cost. Unfortunately, others report they avoid providing such a service because they fear potential liabilities.

    Ujjvala notes the difference between safety being an internal point of pride, while the company’s greenness is marketed externally. Are there other examples of marketing a safe and healthy workforce?

    All of this would be great to discuss on “the Twitter.” Unfortunately, we’re both Luddites who only recently figured out how to operate our Dictaphones. We’ll leave it to Mark, our Twitter guy. He does a great job feeding @NIOSH. We’ll send your info his way.

    Nice article and as it mentions while everyone likes to talk about and spin “going green” it’s refreshing to read an article on the subject that pulls together two very important topics that will always be intertwined in many ways.

    Especially considering how the article brings to light the parallels with respect to the additional effort and potential expense that green initiatives and occupational safety practices/awareness may have on companies and societies.

    Change is typically not the path of least resistance. Taking a small step back in order to take a giant leap forward is often difficult people to deal with as human nature tends to keep people caught up in the ‘here and now’. Similarly companies and business will always feel the pressure to focus on ‘the bottom line’.

    However, as more occupational safety and environmentally friendly practices are embraced, there are a tremendous amount of compelling arguments that illustrate the long term benefits, savings, increased productivity, etc of taking such steps.

    At my company [] we often talk about and promote green initiatives as renting is conceptually a green concept. It is always refreshing to find enlightening news on the subject as change only comes with continued education and awareness initiatives.

    Great article! It was nice to see someone else thinking along the same lines as myself. I have been trying to tie Green and Safety together for sometime now. I think the thing that makes Green so successful is its ability to make its message relevant to people and their lives. Safety always comes off as the enforcer, not the do-gooder trying to give folks a longer, healthy life.

    Stay positive and start with baby steps! Change is hard for most folks but in the end we are all striving for the same goal, better quality of life and more time to spend with the ones we love doing the things we love!

    Through ASSE’s very successful ‘Safety Suitcase’ our members have taken the story of occupational safety to thousands of young school kids around the U.S. for several years since it was first suggested by our members…armed with PPE, a fun presentation, Q & As, powerpoint and leave behinds this has become a powerful tool; this supplements our annual ASSE kids’ ‘safety-on-the-job’ poster contest for kids age 5-14 started 9 years ago to educate our members’ kids on what they do for a living — it has been so successful that we opened it up to all children sponsored by an ASSE member go to…this is growing and thanks to OSHA and the Alliance partnership members and Lamar Advertising the program has grown immensely worldwide. We invite all to participate.

    Safety suitcase info is at

    And, our newly launched ‘Target Teen Workplace Safety’ program at safety is also a success…started a few years ago we put the program into this on-line format with a ton of tools.

    We’ll keep reaching out worldwide, especially as we head into our 10th anniversary of the poster contest and find out where the young winners are now.

    Best, Dian Hurns, []

    Diane, we’ll have to revise our opening paragraph—it looks like you’ve managed to make worker safety interesting and engaging for school kids. Programs like the Safety Suitcase go beyond awareness by generating some critical thought among students. If you can get Jack Johnson to write a safety song, we’ll retract the paragraph entirely.

    Here are some NIOSH resources for those interested in finding more safety tools and information for younger workers:

    Young Worker Safety and Health topic page
    Youth@Work: Talking Safety curriculum
    ◦A blog entry on Talking Safety
    Safety and Health for Younger Workers (on the blog)

    Why not associate safety with comfort? Rather than admonishing people for unsafe acts, encourage them to “Get cozy!” …and avoid pain and injury in the process.

    Thanks for sharing this idea, Karmen. We often hear reports of discomfort being a reason for not wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), and there have been great improvements in PPE design to make it more comfortable (and even fashionable). Properly using PPE is just one example of good health and safety practices—which can all lead to cozy outcomes.

    This has inspired me again to look forward to the day that Occupational Health & Safety is not regarded as the funny-smelling kid you don’t want to sit next to on the bus.

    Promoting the vision of safety, productivity and workforce sustainability as a sound investment can be hard (bafflingly so, to those of us who see the sense of it!). These parallels with the Green movement are a great way to illustrate to stakeholders how it can be a process which uses straightforward concepts in a planned progression to win hearts and minds.

    Thanks very much for the list of companies who are integrating ‘Safe’ and ‘Green’. It provides further evidence that clever people see sustainability as a legitimate business model even in difficult financial times.

    I have been involved in EH&S for a long time and the problem I have experienced is that prevention has a longer time frame than most are willing to accept. Having said that I have long been puzzled that the ISO 14000 Environmental Standard has not been utilized to integrate Environmental (Green) and EH&S. Does anyone know of any such examples?

    The link that needs to be made is not between the green movement and safety but between FITNESS and safety. It’s smart to stay in shape and equally so to protect oneself from injury.

    Really great article and very informed points made by all in the comments. I am happy to say that where I work, we have successfully “married” our Environmental program with our Health & Safety program.

    I work for an electronics recycler and we have IS014001 and are an OSHA SHARP company. Recently we have also become certified to R2 (Responsible Recycling) and the RIOS (Recycling Industry Operating Standard), both of which have the requirement for Environmental AND Health & Safety management systems at their heart.

    The beauty about programs such as these is that it requires us to audit all the companies that we do business with to ensure that they have an effective EHS management system in place. Additionally, we are audited probably on a monthly basis by our customers to ensure EHS compliance. So there is effectively another level of EHS compliance auditing that is occurring businesses to business.

    These certifications and the OSHA SHARP certification are great selling points to attract business. So I feel that there is hope, because in a world where Social Responsibility and Sustainability, which encompasses EHS as part of ethical business practices, is now becoming more prominent, the “market” will reward those companies with good Health and Safety programs.

    Neil Lukey
    Technology Conservation Group

    It is amazing how we have attempted to go from a nation of pure waste to one that recyles. I am glad to see many cooperations flip to the green initative. Furthermore, jobs are made from the recycling of products.

    I think it’s great to be going green, in my opinion it will be the nation that is most powerful AND green that will be the most prosperous in the end. Green is the right direction, but as this post points out, it is important to not leave behind other important factors. There’s always issues with new initiatives such as being green (great example is restaurants being forced to be accessible to disabled people), but eventually things will be sorted out and most everyone will generally benefit. I have a website that reviews green office chairs, and from the reviews I’ve written, I haven’t noticed any setbacks despite the chairs being quite green. So that shows that things can also be green while completely acceptable with modern norms.

    I totally agree with Karmen, I think we portray too much of the negative side of safety instead we should focus on a positive messages so people can actually feel good about being safe!

    I think it’ll help get more people on board. Just my opinion.

    It’s great for me to read this article. I am from India, and we are going green! For me, going green is sort of life attitude-I can just feel good. I think India is really catching up, and Wikipedia even has a article Green Movement in India

    This is great. It is crucial to bring awareness as such to people that have yet to catch on to the movement so-to-speak.

    I think the notion of “just one person making a difference does not really work” also plagues the mind of people, and it is also important to let others know how much of a fallacy this is.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Maya. One person’s passion for workplace safety issues can be contagious.

    Having studied for 5 years in safety, it is paramount within the energy efficiency industry of home window tinting especially when working at heights or in houses when children are present. Our aim is to make the world a better place by reducing carbon emmisions from air conditioning units with the installation of window tint to homes. At the same time we can increase safety by adding strength to the glass and also be mindfull of safety whilst installing window films.

    A very insightful post that brings out the crux of the topic beautifully. Quintessential blog that puts forth the ideas straight and clear. Thanks a lot for the post.

    I enjoyed this article. Chrysler recently combined Environmental with Health and Safety. I agree that it seems like Environmental always got top billing. I am looking forward to Health and Safety getting equal billing. Thank you.

Post a Comment

Leave a Reply to Neil Lukey Cancel Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted become a part of the public domain, and users are responsible for their comments. This is a moderated site and your comments will be reviewed before they are posted. Read more about our comment policy »

Page last reviewed: December 7, 2016
Page last updated: December 7, 2016