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Walking the EHS Talk

Oct. 14, 2010
Dow's commitment to ambitious EHS goals helps drive innovation.

For many companies, money invested in environment, health and safety programs has been under pressure as manufacturers cope with depressed sales and look to reduce investments in what they see as regulatory obligations, not business improvements.

But for Dow Chemical, setting ambitious EHS goals and letting its employees develop innovative ways to meet those goals has resulted in safer workplaces, new business opportunities and considerable financial rewards.

In 1996, Dow set 2005 goals that committed to a 90% reduction in: injuries and illnesses per 200,000 work-hours; leaks, breaks and spills; transportation incidents and process incidents. The company also aimed to reduce motor vehicle incidents by 50%.

Mike Gambrell:
"What we have put together is an integrated EHS model that drives sustainability for the company." As a result of efforts to reach those goals, Dow has reduced personal safety and health incidents by 84%. The company's injury and illness rate is 0.31, compared with a chemical industry average of 1.0 and a U.S. manufacturing rate of 5.6. Company officials point out that working at Dow is 20 times safer than working at a grocery store. Dow also reduced solid waste by 1.6 billion pounds (the equivalent of 415 football fields of waste one meter thick), reduced water use by 183 billion pounds and saved 900 trillion BTUs of energy. Dow reports that its $1 billion investment in these efforts has saved it more than $5 billion.

Dow's current set of sustainability goals for 2015 includes: increase the percentage of sales to 10% for products that are highly advantaged by sustainable chemistry; reduce greenhouse gas intensity 2.5% per year; reduce energy intensity 25%; publish product safety assessments for all products; achieve at least three breakthroughs that will significantly help solve world challenges; achieve individual community acceptance ratings for 100% of Dow sites where it has a major presence; and achieve an average 75% improvement in key indicators for EHS operating excellence from 2005, such as injury and illness rate, process safety incidents and severe motor vehicle accidents.

A pilot plant in West Virginia using proprietary technology jointly developed by Alstom and Dow to capture carbon dioxide (CO2) from the flue gas of a coal-fired boiler Dow reports on progress on these goals quarterly. "We made them public because if people are watching you, you are more likely to walk the talk. Transparency is driving a lot of this," says Mike Gambrell, Dow's executive vice president for manufacturing and engineering operations. He adds that the use of 10-year goals with annual "milestones" helped the company break out of a focus on incremental improvement and seek non-traditional ways to improve its performance. "When you set aspirational goals, it drives innovation because people are not sure how they're going to get there," he says.

One way Dow is helping drive the issue of personal responsibility for safety is through iCommit, which is an enhancement of its Drive to Zero campaign for zero injuries and incidents in its facilities. The iCommit program focuses on individual accountability, says Gambrell, and asks employees to think about what they could do to help the company reach its zero injury goal.

Golden Thread

Gambrell points out that companies traditionally take a "siloed" approach to EHS, along with productivity and financial goals. "What we have put together is an integrated EHS model that drives sustainability for the company," he says. "When you drive sustainability, you are driving the financial performance of the company." Sustainability, says Gambrell, is the "golden thread" that ties together these corporate citizenship goals with the company's operations and business objectives.

In March, Jerome Peribere, president and CEO of Dow's Advanced Materials Division, said clean and sustainable innovations from the company would address more than $20 billion in market opportunities. These opportunities align with what Dow sees as four megatrends shaping markets and consumer behavior: energy, consumerism, transportation and infrastructure, and health and nutrition.

For example, last year Dow introduced its Powerhouse Solar Shingle, which integrates low-cost, thin-film photovoltaic cells into a roofing shingle design. The product allows conventional roofing shingles and solar generating shingles to be installed simultaneously by roofing contractors and doesn't require them to have any special knowledge of solar array installations. Dow is hoping to build a plant that will eventually employ 1,200 workers in Midland, Mich., to produce the solar shingles.

In October, Dow received the Robert W. Campbell award from the National Safety Council for its EHS performance. Gambrell points out that Campbell, the first NSC president, in 1914 had recognized safety as both an economic necessity and a humanitarian work. "We clearly see that," Gambrell says.

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