A Safer Workplace For All: Business Takes the Lead

By Sara Traubel, Associate, Water Cluster at the WBCSD

A Safer Workplace For All: Business Takes the Lead

WBCSD Pledge inspires a global movement towards water, sanitation and hygiene

Imagine that you are a coal miner working 100m underground in East India. You are on the sixth hour of your shift, covered in rocks and soot, and you need to go to the bathroom. Finding a safe and sustainable solution to meet the most basic of needs of their employees, like this miner, can be a major concern for employers. It can be particularly challenging for companies that employ hundreds of thousands of people in a variety of sectors across the world.

The benefits of ensuring access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) at the workplace have been mostly overlooked. Investing in WASH stands for investing in a healthier and more productive workforce. It is also a direct contribution to universal access to WASH, enhancing the livelihoods of billions of people, especially in places where appropriate public provision of clean water and sanitation still lacks.

In 2013, together with our member companies, we established the WBCSD Pledge for WASH at the workplace. Through this initiative, we aim to raise awareness about this critical issue relating to our everyday lives. We provide businesses with international best practice on WASH to support them in their implementation. We allow companies to “walk their talk” on WASH, by accompanying them in taking the necessary steps to ensure the provision of safe WASH to employees in operations under their direct control, within three years upon the commitment. Through our Pledge, we encourage the integration of WASH elements into existing company processes and systems in areas such as health, safety and environment, internal auditing etc.

Self-assessments by signatories of the Pledge clearly demonstrate that some of the gaps in WASH facilities, such as the existence of toilet facilities for both genders and the disabled, would not have been addressed without a commitment to the Pledge. The Pledge also ensures that the right processes are put in place to ensure that WASH facilities pose no health risks.

So far, 27 multinational companies headquartered on 3 continents, representing 15 business sectors and over 1.6 million employees have signed the Pledge. Some have joined the initiative to communicate about their commitment to the societal goals around WASH. Others, to ensure that they have their own house in order before engaging beyond the fence. And still others, to benefit from peer to peer learning in contexts where provision of safe WASH is not very straightforward.

Working with companies on the WASH Pledge has been a fascinating journey. To demonstrate compliance, the Mumbai-based Aditya Birla Group has integrated the WASH Pledge provisions into their sustainability software allowing all of their 184 sites across 36 countries to showcase that they are in line with the points of reference for WASH at the workplace.

Italcementi Group, the world’s fifth largest cement producer, has piloted the WASH Pledge in their plants in India. The clarity of the Pledge requirements as opposed to the national legislation has reduced the subjectivity in assessment to a large extent. The company’s action plan includes behavioural training of cleaning personnel and contractors, as well as fine tuning of cleaning procedures.

For Unilever, the WASH Pledge aligns with one of the company’s corporate goals in the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan: “by 2020, help more than 1 billion people improve their health & well-being”. Their company-wide survey on WASH aims to ensure that best practice is shared and provision is made for all employees as a foundation of this commitment.

WASH at the workplace is about the health, safety and dignity of every employee of every company, regardless of the size, sector or country of operation. By investing in their workforce, companies invest in their own sustainability and long-term success. At the same time they contribute to the realization of the Human Rights to water and sanitation for the billions of people who currently go without.

Responsible and forward-looking businesses lead by example and sign the Pledge. This is an opportunity to materialize the vision of business spearheading global action on water, sanitation and hygiene, essential as much to human dignity as to sustainability of business operations.

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