Why your sustainability strategy needs a chemist on call

I have just come back from the Sustainability Leaders conference in Berlin, during which we heard about the cutting edge ideas, initiatives and approaches being taken by some of the largest companies in the world to improve their corporate sustainability.

I attended on behalf of Ricardo’s sustainability team, who work with businesses to define and deliver their sustainability strategies and then put those strategies into practice with clear actions (not just positive sentiment), and simultaneously collect useful data to monitor performance to establish benefit and progress. I also represented the National Chemical Emergency Centre (NCEC), a subsidiary of Ricardo which provides 24/7 chemical emergency response to public and private sector organisations across the world.

When we talk about chemical emergency response we, understandably, focus on the importance of providing immediate advice to prevent harm to people and the environment. But throughout the event, I couldn’t help asking myself how emergency response also supports corporate sustainability.  

The answer, it turns out, is a lot.

The definition of ‘sustainability’ was discussed at length in one of the panel sessions, and while it is clear that sustainability means many things to many people, one proposed definition stood out: the absence of negative externalities.

Now, that also means a lot of things to different people. But if you are a chemical organisation, transporting hazardous chemicals across the world on many modes of transport, then having a major release of chemicals in a river, or at the side of a busy highway, would be classed as a negative externality!

When you look deeper into this, it becomes clear that controlling chemical risk is a critical component of a company’s sustainability strategy.

The United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which mandate targets for all UN countries to improve global wellbeing, specifically highlight the need to ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all (Goal 6). And under this, the UN sets a clear target for countries to meet:

By 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally.

Source: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg6

My colleagues in our sustainability team are helping some of the world’s largest companies align their businesses strategies with SDGs. For those that handle hazardous materials, a commitment to mitigating the release of hazardous materials is critical to their sustainability strategies.

Unfortunately, chemical releases are inevitable. At some point human error, or a breakdown in process, is likely to involve a chemical release. Leading organisations seek to remove the weak links in the process, but assuming 100% elimination of incidents by 2030 is at best unrealistic and at worst irresponsible.   

The best way to safeguard our ground water tables and waterways is to ensure that there are processes in place to minimise the release of hazardous chemicals and materials, and to mitigate the impact of those released during an incident.

But to be able to do this effectively during an incident requires a vast amount of  knowledge. Knowledge of a chemical’s reactivity and it’s hazards under different conditions. Knowledge of the materials, equipment, tools and processes to deploy to resolve the incident quickly and safely. And knowledge of how to clean up a spill without run off into a drain or waterway.

Every person who handles chemicals can’t be a chemical expert, or have immediate knowledge of how to respond in the first minutes of an incident.

This is where our chemical emergency responders come in in. When an incident occurs - whether it’s a tipped tanker, a punctured barrel or a warehouse fire –  the first responder on scene can immediately call a trained NCEC chemist and be walked through the steps required to safely and quickly control an incident. And if a spill can be contained within 2 minutes of commencing, then the likelihood of that entering waterways is significantly lessened.

The alternative, having a caller ring to a receptionist who has to find the right person, or to a mobile phone which is going to wake a sleeping duty manager in the middle of the night, or to a call centre manned by a non-expert who will simply read through the hazard on a safety data sheet, is not taking a sustainable approach to emergency response.

Having an immediate chemical emergency expert ready to use their knowledge, expertise and experience supports a chemical organisation, or logistics company, to achieve a sustainable agenda in line with SDG targets.

And, of course, helps prevent the negative externalities.

If you want to find out more about how emergency response can support your sustainability strategy, NCEC's Technical Director and head of emergency response, delivered a free webinar on chemical safety management. You can view it on demand here.