Hoping to boost the environmental health and safety (EHS) performance of Chinese industry, a group of global companies and organizations will partner with a regional university to create what organizers say is the first program in China to train specialized EHS managers to global standards.
The $1.5 million effort, which launched May 12 in Guangzhou, aims to educate more than 1,800 people per year and to provide a pool of qualified EHS staff for South China factories. The program, which backers call the EHS Academy, will be housed at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou.
The program is needed because Chinese firms have much higher workplace accident rates than developed countries and often lack resources and awareness of problems, said Wang Xiaohui, executive director of the university's Environmental Health and Safety Academy for Chinese Enterprises, which will operate the new program.
Certainly we can say Chinese companies' injury rates are much higher than Japanese and Western companies that is surely true but how much, we can't say, said Wang, who also is a professor of management at Sun Yat-Sen's Lingnan College.
If you check the news, almost every day we have a disaster in mining, in construction, in house building, he added.
The EHS Academy is funded by U.S.-based companies like General Electric Corp. of Fairfield, Conn., the U.S. Agency for International Development, and Sabic Innovative Plastics LP (formerly GE Plastics) of Pittsfield, Mass., a division of Saudi Basic Industries Corp., which is headquartered in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Another key organizer is the Institute for Sustainable Communities, a Montpelier, Vt.-based group that operates sustainable development programs in 18 countries and maintains an office in Guangzhou.
ISC President George Hamilton said in a May 12 interview in Guangzhou that the EHS effort grew out of discussions his group had with global companies about how to boost performance in their supply chains. It turned out that a significant problem was a lack of trained EHS people.
The main goal is to expand the pool of qualified environmental health and safety managers, for not only the technical competence, but also the ability to build management systems and also the ability to advocate for change within their factories, Hamilton said.
The EHS Academy is a key part of a larger environmental program that ISC and other American, Chinese and Japanese groups launched at a recent conference in Guangzhou.
The effort will include pilot energy efficiency programs in three South China cities to develop models for reducing greenhouse gases and pollution.
The EHS Academy will start in fall 2009, and organizers said they want to make it self-sustaining. The academy will certify managers after they complete 11 courses, each lasting two or three days, designed around work schedules, Hamilton said.
Wang said the global economic crisis has caused the Chinese government to back away from recent efforts to clean up the environment and instead to focus on domestic job growth.
But he predicted that when the economy rebounds, the official focus will shift back to the environment and firms need to be ready.
Hamilton said another driver for Chinese companies is that the global firms they want to supply are increasingly demanding better safety and environmental performance.
A senior GE official told the Guangzhou conference that the conglomerate has cut its on-the-job accident/injury rate from about 5.6 percent of workers in 1996 to about 1 percent in 2008.
Ann Condon, director and counsel for GE's EHS programs for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said that translates to 15,000 fewer injuries and a savings of about $200 million for the company.
She said GE became interested in a program like the EHS Academy after the company analyzed why some of its suppliers would have trouble sustaining EHS improvements and found that having qualified staff was the key factor.
GE found problems with suppliers around the world, including in the United States, Condon said, but the firm wanted an EHS program specifically for China because it felt it could rely more on other countries' regulatory measures to address their EHS issues.
An executive from Adidas Group of Herzogenaurach, Germany another company involved in the EHS Academy said EHS improvements will be slow unless governments start holding factory bosses liable for deaths and injuries that result from company negligence.