GUANGZHOU, CHINA (May 14, 12:35 p.m. ET) -- Hoping to boost environmental and safety performance of Chinese industry, a group of global companies and organizations, including Sabic Innovative Plastics, are partnering with a Chinese university to create what they say is the first program in China to train specialized environmental and safety managers to global standards.
The $1.5 million effort, which launched May 12 in Guangzhou, aims to train more than 1,800 people a year and provide a pool of qualified EHS staff for South China factories. The program will be housed at Guangzhou's Sun Yat-Sen University.

The program is needed because Chinese firms have much higher workplace safety accident rates than developed countries and often lack resources and awareness of problems, said Wang Xiaohui, the executive director of Sun Yat-Sen's Environmental Health and Safety Academy for Chinese Enterprises, which will operate the 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 is also 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.”

The program is funded by American companies like General Electric Corp., Riyadh, Saudi Arabia-based Sabic (formerly GE Plastics), and the United States Agency for International Development.

A key organizer is also the American non-governmental group, the Institute for Sustainable Communities, a Montpelier, Vt.-based group which 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 effort grew out of discussions ISC was having with global and Chinese firms about how to boost environmental and safety performance in their supply chains, and it found a significant problem was a lack of trained 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,” said Hamilton.

The EHS Academy, as organizers are calling it, is a key part of a larger environmental program that ISC and other American, Chinese and Japanese groups launched at a Guangzhou conference May 12. It will also 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. It will certify managers after taking 11 courses of two or three days each, designed around work schedules, Hamilton said.

Sun Yat-Sen's Wang said the economic crisis has caused the Chinese government in the last year to back away somewhat from efforts to clean up the environment, and instead focus more on job growth. But he predicted that when the economy picks up government focus will shift back to the environment and firms need to be ready.

Hamilton said another driver for Chinese firms is that global companies they want to supply to are increasingly demanding better safety and environmental performance.

A senior GE EHS official told the conference that GE has cut its workplace safety accident rate from about 5.6 percent of its workers being injured in a year, in 1996, to a little more than 1 in 2008.

Ann Condon, director and counsel for EHS programs for Europe, the Middle East and Africa for GE, said that translates to 15,000 fewer injuries and a savings of about US $200 million for the company.

She said GE became interested in something like the EHS Academy because when it started analyzing why some suppliers would have trouble sustaining their EHS improvements, it found that having qualified EHS staff was the key factor.

GE found those problems with suppliers around the world, including in the United States, but Condon said it wanted a program in China because it felt it could rely more on regulatory systems in other countries.

An executive from another multinational company involved in the EHS Academy, from sporting goods maker adidas Group, praised the program but said progress will be slower unless governments like China's start holding factory bosses liable for deaths and injuries that result from company negligence.

“In Asia, the enforcement of laws is weak, the regulatory level is weak, and in some ways by introducing … strict obligations and consequences for directors of businesses, it generates the necessary impetus and pressure at the top,” said William Anderson, the Hong Kong-based head of social and environmental affairs, Asia Pacific, for adidas. “That is kind of missing.”

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Global companies partner with Chinese university on safety training