NIOSH Conference Ties Health Promotion to Health Protection

Ensuring that workers go home from work as healthy as they cane to work is no longer enough, according to John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

"We need to ensure that workers return to work the next day as safe and healthy as they can be," Howard asserted in the opening plenary of a symposium titled, "Steps to a Healthier U.S. Workforce."

Breaking down the barriers between what Howard called "the health and safety protection and promotion duopoly" is the major theme of the conference, being held in Washington, DC. Oct. 26-28.

The symposium, which Howard described as the first event in a multi-year initiative launched by NIOSH and co-sponsors, has attracted scores of occupational safety and health providers and professionals, academics, consultants, public health officials and labor leaders.

The goals of the symposium include establishing a research agenda for health productivity management issues and the dissemination of best practices with American businesses and health promoters, protectors and providers.

Howard's speech, and those that followed, made it clear that unsustainable increases in the cost of health care is one of the principal reasons why policy makers and business leaders are interested in connecting newer health promotion strategies with the more traditional approaches of workplace safety and health protection.

Another factor driving this initiative is erosion of the distinction between occupational and non-occupational injuries and illnesses. For example, acute workplace injuries have declined, while work-related chronic conditions, such as low-back pain, have risen, but it is considerably more difficult to determine the workplace causality of such chronic conditions.

Other factors behind the interest in integrating health promotion and protection include:

  • The desire to increase productivity by having a healthier workforce;
  • Increased understanding that a worker's poor health can lead to safety problems at work;
  • The belief that "synergies" between health promotion and protection are possible, allowing for increased public health, as well as decreased medical costs.

At the same time, the challenges of uniting safety and health in and outside the workplace are large, according to Howard.

For example, workers' compensation pays for workplace injuries and illnesses, while health benefits pay for the diseases of "everyday life." The "stove-piping" of these benefit and payment centers in many companies prevents business leaders from seeing holistic strategies that could simultaneously reduce costs, increase employees' health and stimulate productivity.

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