Kaiser Permanente Frontline Workers are Spearheading Solutions to Environmental Challenges
February 4, 2013
There is plenty of talk in the health care industry these days about the importance of working to achieve the “triple bottom line” — measuring success by striking the right balance in caring for people, profit and planet. So it is no surprise that a unique partnership between the federal government and a pioneering group of health care organizations and labor unions aimed at striking such a balance is generating excitement.
For the past two years, Kaiser Permanente has been among a handful of health care partners joining forces to provide training for frontline workers and managers in how to improve environmental responsibility through the practices of recycling, green cleaning and energy conservation. The Environmental Training Program, funded by the Department of Labor as part of the American Recovery and Rehabilitation Act, brings together hospitals and labor unions in four regions — Seattle, Los Angeles, New York City and Maryland/Washington D.C. — in partnerships aimed at strengthening the labor force and greening the health care sector from the inside out.
The goal of the program is to reap the benefits of a triple-bottom-line focus, empowering frontline workers to be agents of sustainability within the hospital setting; providing them with the skills and leadership opportunities to excel in their careers while also reducing costs for the hospital; and making the environment healthier for workers, patients and communities.
Kaiser Permanente, through its long-term Labor Management Partnership, joined with the SEIU UHW-West & Joint Employer Education Fund, the Ben Hudnall Memorial Trust and the Healthcare Career Advancement Program to offer the training program to over 350 environmental services workers at two of its facilities in Southern California — Los Angeles Medical Center and Riverside Medical Center.
Although the federal grant ended last summer, the SEIU Education Fund is continuing the program, in partnership with the Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center and SEIU UHW-West. The training has now been expanded to include dietary and cafeteria employees, as well as the materials management department. The Education Fund is looking for opportunities to expand to other facilities where employees are represented by SEIU.
Being ‘eyes and ears’ for change
“The health care industry generates significant waste and pollution,” says Scott Goodell, who serves as the program’s coordinator at the Los Angeles Medical Center. “In order to better address environmental issues, we knew that our best advocates would be the frontline workers themselves. They are the eyes and ears of the facilities they work in and are often able to identify creative solutions to environmental and safety issues they encounter.”
During the course of the Environmental Training Program, environmental service workers (referred to as EVS workers) at Los Angeles and Riverside were encouraged to identify areas for reducing waste and improving safety in their workflows. By sharing their observations and becoming early adopters of new tools and processes, the workers became a force for positive change.
“The program has allowed me to see my job from a different perspective,” says Labor and Delivery EVS worker Jeffery Ginn. “Now I see opportunities in my work area to help reduce waste and energy, and I feel empowered to talk to my manager and co-workers about solutions.
Early signs of success from the program are generating changes that are proving beneficial on all fronts. For example, traditional mops and hauling buckets used to clean patient rooms have been replaced by water-saving microfiber mops that reduce costs, reduce the spread of infection, and make it easier and safer to perform cleaning tasks.
About 500 D-cell batteries traditionally used in hospital restrooms’ automatic towel dispensers are being replaced by rechargeable batteries that last considerably longer, reduce waste and save upwards of $12,000 a year or more. And educating workers on the proper use of cleaning chemicals for infection control, while switching to greener chemical cleaners where possible, has saved money while reducing patient and worker exposure to harmful chemicals.
Building champions for sustainability
Perhaps one of the most remarkable aspects of the Environmental Training Program has been the way it has helped advance the skills and abilities of participants, building confidence and preparing them for careers in sustainability. Through the training, workers strengthen their problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, becoming knowledgeable in all aspects of sustainability in health care. A small number of workers and managers have participated in Train-the-Trainer programs that further strengthen the capacity of teams to lead trainings in sustainability, effectively passing the knowledge on to others.
To further cement opportunities for career advancement, a semester-long certificate program curriculum has been developed from the green training pilot that now offers college-level credit. Through partnerships with local community colleges, the certificate program provides participants with the credentials to become departmental green leads or sustainability coordinators in hospitals throughout the country.
For Kaiser Permanente EVS attendant Jose Velasco, an SEIU UHW member and a recent graduate of a green certification course offered at West Los Angeles Community College, the Environmental Training Program has given him the knowledge and know-how to be a true champion for environmental sustainability. “I feel better having conversations with anyone…doctors, nurses. I can tell them how to be green. They can look to me for solutions.”