Sunday, April 4, 2010

What still went wrong

One of the common criticisms levelled at CSR Reporting is the focus on good news. Few Companies rise to the challenge of presenting a  balanced report which provides stakeholders with a full picture, including aspects of their sustainability performance which cannot be described as entirely positive. So imagine how refreshing it was to find one company who actually includes a page in their report entitled "What still went wrong". Can you guess who ? I doubt it.

The What Still Went Wrong Company is Royal DSM N.V. and their Sustainability Report for 2009 includes a rather painful page (number 66) of mini-disasters in the field of Safety, Environment and Health. We are treated to stories about an operator whose finger tip was sliced off when he was replacing a gear wheel on a production machine, one who burnt his ankle when he stepped into an open duct with hot condensate, another who was bitten by a venomous snake which is the source of venom proteins for use in treatment of cardiovascular disease, and some poor guy who had an electric cabinet weighing 1600 kg fall on this "torso region". We hear about  near misses such as when a fork lift truck fell of a dock, and a worker who fell through a roof and saved himself by hanging by his elbows at a height of 8 meters (elbows?)  DSM tell us about environmental blips such as the runaway reaction in a storage tank which released decomposition products of chloroacetaldehyde, and yeast broth emissions through a chimney which contaminated the surrounding neighbourhood.

DSM, a Life Science company, employs nearly 23,000 people and has what appears to be a positive and improving safety record, with clear processes in place to prevent and manage safety incidents and near-misses.  What Still Went Wrong does not include any fatalities. And yet, having your finger chopped off during routing maintenance, or breaking your collarbone (yes, that too) are not the sort of things you expect to have to deal with when you pack up your lunch box for another day on the job. The safety of employees is one of the most important aspects of corporate responsibility. But you knew that. So does DSM.

So why include these horror tales in their CSR report? First, being responsible is being transparent. Good news or bad, if it is material, it needs to be told. Even a lost finger tip impacts the quality of a person's life. Second, DSM is boldly going where almost no other Companies fear to tread. By highlighting these incidents. DSM is demonstrating that they are not perfect, in the same way that no Company who issues a Sustainability Report is perfect. Every Company has safety incidents, some far worse. Some simply record numbers of fatalities as a statistic with no further commentary. Most Companies avoid mentioning negative issues, in order to create the impression that they are perfect, when we all know that this cannot be. In this resepct, DSM shows leadership by highlighting issues of which it may not be particularly proud, but in doing so makes a public statement of commitment to do whatever in the Company's control to prevent recurrence. In this way, their reporting contributes to enhanced levels of trust in  the Company.

Whilst I am not advocating that all Sustainability Reports should contain a detailed hospital checklist of broken bones, near-fatal slips and falls, cracked skulls, animal bites and ingested poisons, I do applaud Royal DSM for bringing us down to earth and demonstrating that even with the best of safety practices, people are people, machines are machines, and things happen. Facing up to this reality, responsibly,  is the one of the Golden Principles of CSR. 

elaine cohen is the CEO of Beyond Business, a leading social and environmental consulting and reporting fitm. Visit our website at

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