Employee Safety Beyond the Plant Gate

Are your company"s offices helping or hindering your employees? These checkpoints can help you keep office workers healthy and productive.

If asked if they care about the safety and health of their employees at work, most employers would say "yes." However, many employers may not realize that most injuries that keep employees away from work occur off the job.

According to the National Safety Council, approximately 6 million people suffered temporary or permanent disabling injuries from off-the-job accidents in 1997. American businesses annually pay an average of $400 per employee to cover health care costs and other expenses resulting from off-the-job injuries to employees and their families.

That is why many safety experts stress that employee safety and health should be viewed as a 24-hour-a-day operation. Franz Schneider, president of Humantech Corp. in Ann Arbor, Mich., noted that a company"s human capital [employees] is its biggest asset. "You don"t turn the fire sprinklers off after the office is closed, and you don"t turn your health and safety program off after the office is closed, either," said Schneider.

Safety veteran John Myre was involved in financial and risk management organizations at Southwestern Bell for 34 years. Now he is the editor of the Safety Times newsletter in Chesterfield, Mo., which promotes and advises companies about off-the-job safety and health programs.

"Safety is a 24-hour attitude. The same safety rules apply, whether you are driving a company car to a meeting or hauling your children to soccer practice," said Myre.

Schneider said the goal of any off-the-job program is to give your employees the tools they need in order to either change the hazard they are confronted with or remove themselves from the exposure.

For example, the types of motions performed when a person is engaged in home repair activities such as lifting would be monitored if they took place at work. Employees should learn to manage similar exposures they face in the home.

"Employees can take exactly the same principles that they would use in the workplace and apply them at home. For instance, if you"re not going to pick up a 50-pound object at work, don"t start picking up 50-pound bags of fertilizer at home," said Schneider.

Schneider said companies that promote off-the-job safety and health not only set a good example for employees, but also make a good investment. "A healthy workforce performs better than a sick one," he said.

Myre said an effective off-the-job safety program tends to have synergistic benefits at the workplace. "Employees have fewer on-the-job accidents when safety becomes a part of their value system and lifestyle. An off-the-job program will help promote this," he said.

A Team Effort

Many companies are following the experts" advice and implementing off-the-job safety, health and wellness components to their safety programs. In 1995, for example, chemical manufacturer Rohm & Haas ordered that off-the-job safety programs be implemented at all Rohm & Haas sites across the country.

Rohm & Haas" 1,000-employee Deer Park, Texas facility became one of the first sites with such a program. Officials created the Off-the-Job Safety Team, comprised of 10 volunteer employees (full-time and part-time), charged with leading an effort "to reduce accidents and injuries that happen off the job and, thus, reduce pain and suffering for employees and their families."

Charles Wise, VPP specialist and safety team volunteer, said the team conducted surveys to find out what employees wanted in the program. They then created monthly programs covering those topics, which have included health and fitness, defensive driving, water safety, hunting safety, holiday safety, first aid and CPR.

Each member of the safety team takes a program topic for the month, designs the program and facilitates it any way he/she wants. All programs are open to Rohm & Haas employees and their families. Programs are conducted either in the plant or off-site at the local YMCA.

One of the ways the Safety Team tries to gain employees" interest in off-the-job safety is through the use of safety incentives. Sam Whitley, senior scientist and safety team volunteer, said one of the most popular incentives was the lawn and garden safety giveaway in April. The Safety Team raffled off a lawn and garden safety bag packed with goggles, ear plugs and sun glasses. "The employee who won the safety bag was hit in the eye by a rock while he was mowing his lawn, but was uninjured because he was wearing the goggles that were in that bag," said Whitley.

Last June, the safety team conducted a Seat Belt Check to promote defensive driving. "If employees had their seat belts on when they drove up to the plant, they received a scratch-off lottery ticket and information on seat belt safety," said Wise. "If they didn"t have on their seat belt, they just got the information."

In September, the annual off-the-job safety fair takes place at the YMCA. Employees and their families are invited to view exhibits from insurance companies and hospitals and enjoy other fair-like activities, such as a magic show.

To promote health and fitness, Rohm & Haas partners with the YMCA for corporate memberships for all employees and their families. "One thing employees have wanted for years is a fitness center on-site, but because of [liability concerns], that wasn"t possible, so we struck this deal," said Wise. More than 200 employees and their families are members of the YMCA. Rohm & Haas pays half the cost of their memberships.

Employees can also purchase home safety products at the Off-the-Job Safety Store. The Safety Team makes bulk purchases of various home safety devices, such as fire extinguishers, smoke detectors and first aid kits. Employees can buy any of the items at half-price.

"One of our biggest sellers is the $80 infant car seat that we sell for $40. That is a favorite of the mothers," said Wise. "We received one employee testimonial about how the car seat saved his child"s life in an accident."

Employees who share personal off-the-job accidents or near-misses and have their stories printed in the monthly Off-the-Job Safety Team newsletter receive $20 worth of merchandise from the Off-the-Job Safety Store. Off-the-job accounts and testimonials are featured on the Off-the-Job Intranet site available to all employees.

Whitley said that the off-the-job program is not only enjoyable to employees and their families, but beneficial and even life-saving, at times. "You are 10 times as likely to have an accident away from the job as on it, primarily because of attitude. The things we are not allowed to do at work, we take chances on at home," said Whitley.

Rohm & Haas" program reinforces the fact that the company is interested in its employees" welfare off-the-job as well as on.

"We are not trying to tell people what to do when they are away from their jobs. We just want them to know we are concerned about their safety," said Wise.

Taking Charge at Xerox

Another company that is dedicated to the health and welfare of their employees 24 hours a day is Xerox. Xerox uses a "take charge" slogan when referring to its corporate program, which focuses on health, safety, wellness and ergonomic rehabilitation. Three different programs work with one another to promote wellness and safety for Xerox employees. These three programs are the Xerox Health Management Program (XHMP) in Rochester, N.Y., the Workplace Safety Department in Webster, N.Y. and the Xerox Rehabilitation Productivity Center in Webster, N.Y.

In 1979, XHMP was developed to promote employee health at all U.S. locations.

Debbi Napier, manager of XHMP, said the program is designed to provide the resources employees" need to promote self-care. "Our slogan is "take charge of your life." We are really trying to tell employees that it"s your body and you need to be responsible for it."

Currently, more than 60,000 Xerox employees, retirees and family members participate in the program. Napier said much of the program and its materials is set up so that information is brought home and shared with family members.

"We have a newsletter called Take Charge that is mailed to employees" homes. These quarterly newsletters cover topics ranging from eye care and sleeping to stress management," said Napier.

Some newsletters are organized around national health campaigns such as National Red Ribbon Week, which promotes alcohol and drug awareness and encourages individuals to live drug-free.

Resource packs are a popular communication vehicle used by XHMP. These free informational packs cover more than 60 different health topics such as arthritis, home exercise equipment and depression. Resource packs include a collection of articles and brochures with current information related to the various health topics. XHMP gathers the information for the packs from various health journals and reputable Internet sites. They are continually updated, and a new pack is added to the collection each quarter. Napier said the XHMP department receives 700 to 1,000 requests from employees for resource packs each month. Resource packs are mailed to employees homes upon request.

XHMP is facilitated through 350 Team Leaders. These volunteers are responsible for encouraging fellow employees to participate in XHMP and disseminating monthly health materials to their various work locations.

Xerox"s Workplace Safety Department has initiated a Zero Injury Program to reduce not only work-related injuries, but also those that occur off the job.

When the safety department does an ergonomic training session, for example, trainers emphasize that the body doesn"t know the difference between being at work or at home.

"Whether you bend over to lift a 50-pound cart at work or you bend over to lift your 50-pound child, that same stress is going to happen to your back. People need to be aware of that," said Wendi Latko, manager of the Ergo Resource Center, a division of the safety department. She noted that the safety department has puts safety tips for home and work on the company"s Website.

The Xerox Rehabilitation Productivity Center (XRPC) plays a unique role in employee wellness at the Webster, N.Y. facility.

Webster employees who want to use the free rehabilitation center can either be referred by their supervisor or can contact the facility themselves.

XRPC provides a work setting in which employees who were injured either on- or off-the-job can perform alternative work assignments while recovering from their injuries.

Light duty work is geared toward helping employees rehabilitate by gradually challenging them with different work-hardening activities. For example, when employees begin rehabilitation, they may engage in a light activity, such as sorting and inspecting the plastic bags in which electronic components are packaged. As rehabilitation progresses, the employees may advance to inspecting and cleaning five-pound motors.

Disabled employees collect 100 percent of their pay and benefits and receive on-site medical services to hasten their recovery. Employees" recovery periods usually range from 30 to 90 days. The maximum time for recovery at the Center is 90 days.

Ten registered nurses work with employees to bring them back to work quickly through physical therapy and rehabilitation. These nurses provide personalized training to employees, as well as guidance in ergonomics, safety and worksite challenges.

XRPC nurse Rod Hart, RN, said when he trains employees to get back on the job quickly, he encourages them to follow the same safe practices at home. "We tell them how to save their backs, whether they are at home pulling logs across the front yard or at work lifting parts for machines," said Hart.

Hart said the rehabilitation center works as a support system and attempts, like the other Xerox programs, to promote self-care.

"I don"t want employees to be dependent on me for their wellness and health. I want them to take charge of their own lives," said Hart.

Long-Term Goals

Humantech"s Schneider said it is important to remember that companies should look toward long-term goals when thinking about an off-the-job safety program.

"You want to create a situation where an individual can contribute thousands of hours a year. You can do that by helping employees to apply every safety measure, whether it is at work or in the home," he said.

Schneider warns off-the-job safety is not for beginners. Having a valid on-the-job safety program is the first step.

"When your on-the-job safety program is robust, then you can slightly alter the materials to the off-work setting," said Schneider.

Safety Times Myre stressed that wellness and off-the-job safety programs have the same goals. "In both programs, you"re trying to influence people in a way that helps both the employer and the employee," said Myre. He noted that even the most experienced and well-educated employees won"t anticipate every hazard, but they will discover the most critical safety problems.

"No organization can provide enough information to guarantee an employee"s life will be risk-free. However, with the right information, employees will develop their own safety programs that they can use, whether at work or home," said Myre.

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