Safety Catalyst: Focusing on Health for High-level Safety Performance

When it comes to improving employee safety and health, the sum is definitely greater than the parts.

Many safety professionals admit feeling frustrated trying to help others change their behavior in order to prevent life-threatening events. I've heard numerous pros wonder, "It's in their own best interests. Why won't they act safely?"

We are not alone. In "Change or Die," an article in the May 2005 FastCompany magazine, Dr. Edward Miller, dean of the medical school and CEO of the hospital at Johns Hopkins University, is quoted on a study of the 1.3 million people who undergo heart bypass surgery each year in the United States. Dr. Miller reports that about half the time, the bypass grafts "clog up in a few years." He attributes much of this circulatory recidivism to the 90 percent of patients who, after their "traumatic" and expensive ($100,000 or more) surgery, don't change the lifestyle that contributed to their illness. Evidently, for those who came close to their end, the fear of dying wasn't enough to scare them into changing their eating and other daily habits.

The implications for safety professionals are staggering. While we've made significant strides in safety, many organizations have hit a plateau in preventing personal injuries. This could be due to many reasons not knowing what replacement behaviors to try, thinking about but not changing habits, or not having the energy or motivation to make needed personal change. In addition, an aging work force, while a more experienced one, may be more prone to heart disease, hypertension, arthritis and diabetes, as well as musculo-skeletal cumulative trauma and other health concerns.

Organizations face constantly expanding health care costs. While many safety professionals have "health" in their title (EHS, SHE), their scope is usually limited to reducing exposures to chemicals, foreign objects or noise.

True, yearly company health fairs target lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, anti-smoking campaigns, avoiding substance abuse, getting gym-fit and reducing the above-mentioned exposures. They all are important, and events are usually well-attended. But it's too narrow a focus and too infrequent an exposure.

Recognize that health is not a separate concern, not something that only fits in the province of the medical or wellness departments; it strongly impacts workers' ability to perform safely. For example, it's easy to be distracted when working with a background level of continuous pain, operating sleep-deprived in zombie-like fashion or being anxious with personal health fears. In more than 20 years of training workers to prevent slips and falls, I've too often heard reports of someone tripping on a mat because they were just too fatigued to sufficiently raise their feet while walking.

The good news is safety professionals can effectively employ health to boost safety performance. Think of this as a win-win. It personally helps any organizational member, elevates safety results and raises your stock as a change agent who can creatively attack and help with a significant obstacle to overall organizational strength.

Beyond the Health Fair

How do you go beyond the traditional health fair topics? (Of course, each person is encouraged to get their physician's approval prior to invoking any lifestyle change.)

First, harness the power of breath. The brain is the first part of the body that reacts to oxygen deprivation; shallow breathing can lead to inattention, mental fogginess and poor decision-making all critical to safe performance. There are numerous breathing exercises that can help clear the mind, boost physical energy level and promote overall health. We've found that appropriate breath control can contribute to reducing strains and sprains and more.

Second, uncover the hidden power of sleep. Noted sleep expert Jill Glenn, president of Sleep Health & Wellness NW (www.sleepwellnessnw.com), says, "Sleep deprivation is rampant. Studies show this can affect more than 60 percent of adults at least twice per week. Many injuries are related to reduced attention, judgment, decision-making, depression and poor memory stemming from lack of effective sleep." Easier said than done? Even where people work overtime, Glenn contends, it's realistic for them to increase the efficiency and healthy payback from their sleep.

Third, focus on the untapped power of diet and nutrition. For example, did you know that certain foods such as blueberries, strawberries and walnuts appear to have a positive effect on brain function, critical for paying attention to potential hazards and to remembering needed procedures? A Tufts University study also revealed that flax seed oil, olive oil and other foods reduce age-related brain inflammation. Current research reveals there also are a wide range of natural supplements that can boost memory, immune system function, joint health and nervous system effectiveness.

Fourth, help others discover hidden conditioning possibilities, such as taking the stairs whenever possible, or burning off the sludge at workday's end by walking briskly around the block before opening their front door. Employees of one of our clients in the wood products industry voluntarily fill the parking lot beginning with the most distant spaces; this gets them started on the right footing each day.

Fifth, tap into the benefits of positive stress control. Go beyond old saws of "balance your work and your life" toward providing workable and innovative methods for changing attitude, balancing emotions and unloading excess physical tension. For example, adjusting spinal posture not only boosts physical balance and relaxation, it also results in immediate improvements in emotional control. We have articles available on our Web site on stress and safety (www.masteringsafety.com).

Highest-level organizational safety is significantly more than just preventing injuries that few believe will ever happen to them ("I'm too old/young/ smart/experienced/quick to get hurt"). It's about helping people live healthier, more productive lives, feeling strong and alert and getting done what's important.

My hope is that for your own longevity and quality of life, you practice living as healthy as you can. And that in your work as we do in every one of our interventions focus on simultaneously boosting safety and health. Creatively promoting health can significantly boost personal and organizational safety.

Robert Pater (rpater@movesmart.com) is managing director of Portland, Ore.-based Strategic Safety Associates.

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