Issue No. 17, June 2013
Managing Environmental Health in International Development Projects
The concept of environmental health is relatively new and is not yet widely understood, accepted or applied in the oil and gas industry. The concept has been defined various ways 1 2, but for our purposes, we will use the following definition:
Environmental health addresses the interrelationship between people and the environment, including direct and indirect factors that may adversely impact human health or the ecological balances essential to long-term human health and environmental quality.3
In other words, environmental health is the interplay between the environment, affected communities and health and safety. It is dependent upon activities that occur both inside and outside a project’s fenceline, and is best studied by analyzing social, environmental and health and safety issues in an integrated manner.
Industries typically utilize separate mechanisms to evaluate issues inside and outside the fenceline independently. Worker and occupational health and safety concerns inside the fenceline are often addressed through risk assessments and safety studies, while concerns outside the fenceline are addressed by EIA/ESIA/ESHIA studies to evaluate impacts to environment and communities. In evaluating these factors separately, there is a disconnect in the mitigation of environmental health concerns. The text box and figure below describe the unique factors pertinent to environmental health and show the interrelationship and overlap between them.
Social and environmental factors overlap due to a community’s dependence upon the surrounding physical and biological environment. Many communities rely on nearby ecosystems for food, water, cultural and spiritual traditions. If the environment is adversely affected, the nutrition and wellbeing of the nearby community may suffer as a result. On the flip side, project activities may alter community behavior causing any number of adverse environmental impacts. For example, an increased amount of waste in the community (from population influx) may lead to environmental pollution, which in turn could negatively affect ecosystem services and thus community access to food and/or cultural resources.
Overlap of environment and health and safety factors controlled inside the fenceline is not always fully evaluated and adequately managed outside the fenceline in nearby environments. While emissions and other factors are often monitored on site, and adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) is donned by workers within the fenceline, air and water pollutants, dust, noise and other factors may affect sensitive receptors offsite.
The same reasoning applies to the overlap between social and health and safety factors and the management of those factors for workers and communities. For example, health and safety measures may be put in place to help workers adjust to new work environments and maintain social and psychological health, while impacts to surrounding community members, such as changes to lifestyle and daily routines from vehicle traffic, noise, interactions with workers (bullying, harassment, etc.), and general stress, may be overlooked or underestimated. Communities may benefit from wellness programs similar to those established for workers but tailored to address the impacts specific to the communities.
Some circumstances may lead to the interplay of factors from all three disciplines, resulting from the accumulation of a number of negative impacts to communities, the environment and possibly the workers themselves. Furthermore, because these issues can take time to appear, immediate considerations for management of environmental health are often not enough. Short term mitigations may identify and address those issues that are immediately apparent, but do not always transfer well to long-term management. This allows issues that gradually build to go unnoticed until they become an immediate problem.
One common example of the above includes impacts resulting from the destruction of the environment and resulting habitat loss due to project development on new lands. As new projects are developed in pristine, or largely underdeveloped areas, animals are displaced from their natural habitats and seek refuge in nearby areas. When this occurs, nearby communities and project sites may experience an influx of displaced wildlife that can carry disease and pose risks to human health and safety. Health and safety plans for areas inside the fence often include measures to protect workers from vermin and other wildlife, however, they do not account for increased numbers resulting from environmental change; social practices rarely, if ever, consider this issue. Discussions between environmental, social and health and safety specialists can better help to mitigate and/or prevent issues such as these.
While the above case serves as generic example of an environmental health challenge, several companies have already struggled to integrate social, environmental and health and safety considerations:
Large scale environmental health issues like the ones outlined above can be avoided if identification and prevention measures are enacted early on in project scheduling. Unfortunately, the challenge lies not in the amount of effort put forth by a company to identify issues, but rather, where and how effort is applied to mitigate these concerns.
Example 3, further discussed on the TOTAL website, presents a positive example of environmental health management. This type of specialist interaction and cooperation is not yet widespread within extractives industries. Oil and gas companies tend to have environmental specialists, social specialists and occupational health and safety specialists, and while these individuals may all be combined into one group (EHS, SHE, HSE, etc.), communication between individuals is often limited to an as-needed basis. It is because of this lack of integrated cooperation that cross-disciplinary issues can easily slip past, under the radar.
In order for these concepts to be fully integrated, and for environmental health to take a firm seat in the core practices of the oil and gas industry, companies must strive to integrate these three fields and foster communication between specialists. This can be done by increasing interactions between employees of each field, stimulating cooperation and creating a more generative culture within the company. As discussed by Snodgrass et. al. at the Society of Petroleum Engineers 2013 HSSE Conference, such integration encourages employees to understand all aspects of their operating environment, and enables them to benchmark their performance to meet “best in class” industry standards. This increased cooperation can help employees see the bigger picture, rather than just a small portion, of the project(s) they are working on.
1 Many definitions, including the widely referenced World Health Organization definition (endnote 2) lean too heavily towards environmental issues impacting human health, and neglect the health issues that may stem from humans impacting the environment.
2 “Environmental health addresses all the physical, chemical, and biological factors external to a person, and all the related factors impacting behaviours. It encompasses the assessment and control of those environmental factors that can potentially affect health. It is targeted towards preventing disease and creating health-supportive environments. This definition excludes behaviour not related to environment, as well as behaviour related to the social and cultural environment, and genetics.”
3 National Environmental Health Association, 1996. Available at: http://www.neha.org/, last accessed May 2013.
4 TOTAL, 2013. Available at: http://www.total.com/en/our-challenges/driving-shared-development-/our-actions/access-to-energy-201064.html, last accessed June 2013.
5 Snodgrass, Mary Beth, Soledad Milius, Joanne Howard, Colby Hafner. March 2013. Integrating Social Performance Management: A Comparison with HSE Performance, 2013 SPE Americas E&P Health, Safety, Security & Environmental Conference, Galveston, TX, USA.
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