Friday, June 13, 2008

Finding new ways to 'do no harm'

When it comes to caring for the environment, CoxHealth is taking steps to become a leader in good stewardship.

With an employee base the size of many Ozarks towns, there is plenty of room for even small changes to make a big impact on the environment and on the organization’s bottom line.

To pioneer those changes, CoxHealth recently formed the Environmental Leadership Council. The group will focus on practical ways to make the hospital more environmentally friendly – both through system-wide efforts and by cultivating the support of individual staff members who may want to change their own habits to be more “green.”

The council, which was formed early this spring, resulted in part from ongoing efforts to make Cox’s new facilities environmentally sustainable. The council’s 15 representatives from throughout the system are led by co-chairs Shana Tauai, director of support services at Hulston Cancer Center, and Collin Sherick, director of Environmental Services.

Tauai and Sherick are well versed in dealing with environmental challenges: Tauai’s master’s thesis dealt with environmental sustainability in hospitals and Sherick and his staff see firsthand the amount of waste the hospital produces.

The pair work closely with Rod Schaffer, vice president of Facility Services and one of the originators of the idea for an environmental council.

As Schaffer attended meetings on how to make new facilities sustainable, he began thinking about what Cox could be doing now to make changes in the hospital’s current facilities. Some of those changes, including the addition of an environmentally friendly floor covering on the skywalk and a switch to “greener” paper towels, have already been put in place.

“Health care has some of the greatest opportunities to make a positive impact on the environment for patients, staff and our community,” Schaffer says. “Creating a health-based agenda for green operations throughout our facilities is a defining facet of excellence, quality and leadership.”

Narrowing down those opportunities and working on steps to take advantage of them are among the council’s first tasks.

“It can be hard to know where to start, there’s so much,” Sherick says.

At the council’s second meeting, members decided to focus first on the paper that is discarded throughout the hospital. While cardboard is currently recycled and there are locked bins for recycling confidential paperwork on most patient floors, there is still plenty of paper waste that’s headed for the landfill rather than to a recycling center. In the coming months, the council plans to explore ways to better handle paper waste.

Progress on this and other council activities will be announced on a new Environmental Leadership Council Intraweb page that recently launched. The page is a place for employees to see what the council is working on and read tips on things they can do to be more green, both at work and at home.

The page also features a link to an online registry for employees wanting to carpool to work — an option that has a big economic benefit as well as an environmental one.

“I think the desire to be more environmentally conscious is there for sure,” Sherick says. “More people are realizing that with issues of global warming and waste disposal, if we don’t change our ways, it will have an impact on our children and grandchildren.”

Sherick says that consciousness already guides many decisions made in Environmental Services, such as a switch to green chemicals last fall. Throughout CoxHealth, many of the efficiency-boosting projects developed alongside Wellspring consultants also have the double benefit of trimming costs and reducing waste. A few examples of recent efforts:

• Cardboard from throughout the hospitals has been recycled for several years — a move that actually produces a small amount of income when material is sold to fiber companies.

• Environmental Services has switched to floor scrubbers that use concentrated chemicals and require less water.

• Lights in areas that are not occupied 24 hours a day are now connected to motion sensors, allowing them to be off when no one’s around.

• CoxHealth now requires vehicles waiting to make deliveries to shut off their engines, rather than idling.

• IT has been phasing out CRT monitors for computers and replacing them with energy-saving flat screen monitors.

• Bed-change policies have been modified to reduce the total amount of linens washed, and the amount of water used.

Each change makes a difference, but council leaders are well aware that there is a long way to go toward making a system the size of Cox more environmentally friendly.

To get an idea of how big the problem is for health care, consider that only the construction industry is worse in terms of landfill usage. Tauai says it is “staggering how much impact our industry is having on our environment and ultimately our health in terms of landfill usage and water and energy consumption.”

That’s something that needs to change, she says.

“Health care should be held to a higher standard in all aspects of business — from the food we serve to the way we make purchasing decisions.

“Just the things we talked about in our first meeting, focusing on paper recycling and carpooling can change the way Cox does business,” Tauai says. “This can have a positive affect on our community and our employees and it’s just the right thing to do.”

Sherick says that because of the scope of such a project, employees’ individual actions will be key to making a difference.

“People will need to look in their areas and ask ‘What can I do?’” he says. “We can make all the policies we want, but this is everyone’s responsibility.”