Beware the Pitfalls of a Global Corporate Standard

by Tjeerd Hendel-Blackford 08 Sep. 2017

We should respect the local EHS laws of non-Western countries – no matter how ridiculous they might seem.

Anyone who has worked for an international company will likely have a few interesting cross-cultural stories to tell. I for one hear anecdotes on different cultural approaches and requirements relating to environment, health and safety issues on an almost daily basis. Some of these anecdotes stem from unusual legal obligations that we cover for our clients. They can raise a few eyebrows to those of us brought up on EU-led safety-consciousness.

For example, did you know that in India, under the Factories Act 1948, there is a requirement that only adult male workers wearing tight-fitting clothing can examine, lubricate or adjust any machinery in motion? Or that in Russia, under a 2009 order, if you work in an environment where you may be exposed to ionizing radiation, you are entitled to regular provisions of free milk? Were you aware that in Pakistan certain factories are required to provide spittoons at convenient places for their workers?

Of course, although these requirements stand out as being unusual – even humorous – they pertain to serious subjects. It makes perfect sense that if you are working on machinery with moving parts that loose clothing is extremely hazardous, milk is highly nutritious and wouldn’t you rather have spittoons than people spitting on the work floor? Being aware (or unaware) of local legal obligations are just one of a variety of risks that your company will face when doing business and keeping your people safe and healthy, wherever you have locations around the world. As well as variations in law, you will of course also have to contend with differences in culture, language, professional approaches, customs, holidays, religious festivals, beliefs and attitudes. All of these factors must be considered when trying to manage safety in different locations.

It is fairly common to hear an EHS manager say: “It doesn’t matter what the local law says, we are going to impose our corporate EHS standards on all our facilities all over the world and because they are based on UK law they will be stricter than anything they have in place. The local laws are never enforced anyhow.” There would be little wrong with this approach, if it were true. However, there are many variations in EHS laws around the world that mean this could be a less than sensible approach. Not only that, but do you think it will be easy to tell your site in France, China, Russia or wherever that they will need to apply standards based on UK law on top of their own legal obligations? Yes, there is a culture of health and safety management in the UK that is more developed (or perceived to be more developed) than in some countries, but our research at Enhesa is also finding an exponential rise in the adoption of EHS laws and enforcement of these around the world.

Governments and authorities the world over are moving to protect their workforces more, so the need to be aware of local laws and practices is becoming increasingly important. Have you come across any such issues/anecdotes?