Worthington Puts Wellness to Work

April 1, 2008
A comprehensive wellness program helps Worthington Industries keep employees happy, healthy and working well.

Three years ago, while working in the cylinder plant at Worthington Industries, Fred Sorrell suffered a persistent sinus headache. The discomfort progressed until he finally made an appointment with the company’s on-site medical center.

It sounds simple, but it was a significant step for Sorrell. He hadn’t been to a doctor in 14 years.

The staff at Worthington’s medical center confirmed Sorrell had a sinus infection, but they didn’t stop there. They gave him a comprehensive exam, running a battery of tests and checking his blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels. They even sent him out for a CAT scan and an MRI.

“Basically, they left no stone unturned,” he remembers. “They put me through about everything so they could find out exactly what was going on.”

What they found was that besides a sinus infection, Sorrell also had high blood pressure, allergies, high cholesterol and Type II diabetes. As a result, the doctors, nurses and nutritionist at the medical center worked with Sorrell to help him make some healthy changes, particularly in his diet.

Their efforts paid off: Since that day 3 years ago when he stepped into the medical center for a sinus headache, Sorrell lost 50 pounds and has his cholesterol, blood pressure and sugar levels under control.

Sorrell, a 27-year veteran of Worthington Industries, says this turn to wellness made him a happier, more productive and safer worker. “I can work all day without any problems,” he says. “They put me on a pretty good path.”

And it all started because his company implemented a wellness program that helps employees both live and work to the fullest.

A Healthy Start

Columbus, Ohio-based Worthington Industries operates 68 branches throughout the United States and 10 other countries. The steel processing company employs approximately 8,000 employees, with 1,200 working in central Ohio. The company has made Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list four times since 1998, an accomplishment Benefits Director Kay Cooke attributes in part to the wellness program.

“If people are exercising and are in better health, they’re going to be better producers,” Cooke says.
That mindset was first put into action 20 years ago, when the company’s former director of personnel and current chairman and CEO John P. McConnell decided to convert a warehouse into a gym for employees’ use. Cooke says he hoped providing an exercise facility could help employees get in shape, stay strong, increase productivity and reduce on-the-job injuries.

Just as Sorrell’s medical examination went beyond his sinus symptoms, the company didn’t stop at the fitness facility. Today, the Columbus headquarters offers the on-site medical center, a pharmacy, a choice of three health care plan options and the chance to participate in the wellness program, which provides a wellness credit – $25 a month for single employees, $50 for families – that workers can put toward health care premiums, dental or vision plans, retirement plans or flexcare spending accounts.

Employees who voluntarily participate in the program first complete a wellness assessment and a health screening, which are conducted by an outside vendor to ensure confidentiality. Moderate- and high-risk employees must acquire two points per quarter to maintain their spots in the wellness program. To earn points, participants can choose from a variety of options, such as completing an online healthy living program, participating in the company wellness challenge or joining a weight management or smoking cessation program.

“The point is to keep those people engaged throughout the year,” Cooke explains.

And that’s not all. The company employs a dietician, who is on hand to help employees evaluate their food choices, convert recipes into healthier versions and promote smoking cessation. Two full-time personal trainers at the company’s fitness facilities help employees develop exercise plans. Worthington also holds health fairs that feature wellness vendors and health screening options.

Employee Involvement

Implementing a wellness program comes with its challenges, such as getting upper management on board, finding ways to measure results and encouraging employee involvement.

“I think the biggest challenge is keeping people engaged,” Cook considers.

To help in this department, Worthington added online options in recent years and has increased the requirements for employee participation in the program.

“With each year, we make it harder,” Cooke says, adding that the increasing difficulty can be seen in the numbers. When the wellness program began in 1995, for example, 65 percent of employees participated. That number is now down to 55 percent, an indication that employees must really work to maintain their place in the program.

But the wellness credit, Cooke says, should make the effort worthwhile. It offers employees up to an additional $600 a year to stay engaged in some form of wellness.

“It’s a pretty generous incentive, probably higher than a lot of other companies,” she says.

To further encourage employee participation, the company launched a new “wellness champions” program this year. Wellness champions participate in monthly 45-minute conference calls with third-party vendor representatives. They then promote good health and the program to other employees.

“Some wellness champions have great ideas, so they’re sharing their best practices among each other,” she says.

A Medical Time Saver

Worthington’s on-site medical center opened 12 years ago and has offered workers convenient medical care ever since. Employees are not required to use the center, but many rely on it as their primary care facility. Families, as well as retired employees, also are welcome.

“It is a wonderful facility, and from the day the doors opened, employees loved it,” Cooke says.

In 2006, the medical center saw 9,000 patient visits and administered close to 11,000 lab tests, 900 X-rays and 3,000 wellness blood draws for central Ohio’s 1,200 employees. The center employs three physicians and a nutritionist and operates during hours convenient for the cylinder plant’s three shifts. Employees can use the on-site center to take advantage of vaccinations, pre-hire hearing testing, stress testing, mammograms, X-rays and an extensive diabetic and pre-diabetic program.

“You can get a tip-to-toe all in one facility, which is nice because you don’t have to run all over town,” says David Cowden, the medical center’s practice administrator.

Plus, it’s a time saver. “It’s the only facility that you spend less time in the waiting room than you spend with a doctor,” says Cowden.

But fast service doesn’t mean employees are rushed out the door. Lower patient volume, Cowden explains, means more patient education. And just as Sorrell received a thorough examination, employees who visit the wellness center have the opportunity to explore health issues they may not have planned to address. It’s called “additional diagnosis” and Cowden says it’s good for patients because they open up and are able to talk about other problems they might experience, such as depression or sleep apnea.

Furthermore, an on-site medical center can be invaluable for workplace emergencies. If an accident or medical emergency occurs at Worthington’s cylinder plant, for example, medical staff can grab the on-site crash cart and rush to the scene to offer immediate assistance. All 911 calls made on the premises also ring to the medical center, thereby alerting staff as soon as possible.

Finally, Worthington offers employees the convenience of an on-site pharmacy, which is located in the medical center. Cowden says the pharmacy, which also manages all mail-in orders for the entire company, fills an average of 40,000 prescriptions per year. For added convenience, the pharmacy has a drive-through window and offers over-the-counter medications sold almost at cost to save employees money.

All these offerings spell better health and illness and injury prevention for employees. In fact, a dip in medical center visits this year indicates that workers might be getting healthier.

“We always joke that if we do a good enough job, we’ll work ourselves out of job,” Cowden says.

The Safety-Wellness Connection

Of course, Worthington isn’t all treadmills and prescriptions: the company also recognizes how wellness correlates to safety. Since joining the company in 2001 as the EHS and human resources director, Terry Leberfinger has helped Worthington make that connection.

Under Leberfinger’s leadership, the company overhauled its safety program and saw significant results. From 2001 to 2006, total injuries dropped nearly 65 percent. Worthington also experienced a dramatic drop in DART rates and workers’ compensation claims – more than 1,000 claims were filed in 2001, compared to 358 in 2006.
“We continue to see a downward trend in our overall injuries,” he says.

Leberfinger explains that companies who launch successful wellness programs will see improvements in productivity, quality and morale. A conditioned, in-shape worker has a reduced risk of incurring sprains and strains, he says.

“Being in better physical condition certainly is a known prevention,” he points out. “We try to utilize the fitness centers to make sure that our folks understand those principles.”

In addition to physical fitness, simple awareness goes a long way. In the cylinder plant, workers are kept apprised of hazards, accidents or near-misses through a notification system that resembles a traffic light: a green light means all systems are clear, a yellow light indicates that a near-miss occurred and red warns of an accident within the plant. Employees can then read posted information about the incident while considering possible workplace hazards, keeping safety in mind.

Leberfinger adds that from a business standpoint, it’s always bad news to lose a valued employee, whether he or she must sit out due to an injury or suffers from ill health and decreased productivity. And if an accident does occur, production must shut down – a costly problem. One Worthington facility, for example, is estimated to lose up to $10,000 a minute for downtime. Obviously, that’s something employers want to avoid.

Measuring the Results

While happier, healthier employees are a boost to any workplace, Cooke admits that it can be difficult to quantify the results of such a wellness program.

“We knew it would take 3 to 5 years to really see some significant change in the behaviors,” she says.

The company already has seen progress in several areas, such as a reduction in the number of employees who smoke, which dropped from 22 to 15 percent. Workers with high blood pressure also recently dropped 3 percent.

“I think when we started out, we knew in our hearts that it was going to save us money,” Cooke explains. Today, she says, the company’s return on investment for the wellness program is 2 to 1.

While it’s clear a focus on wellness is beneficial for employees and the work environment, companies shouldn’t expect to see immediate, hard and fast proof of just how much the program can save. Sometimes, savings surface in indirect ways instead of in black-and-white figures, like raised employee morale, reduced absenteeism and content workers more likely to remain loyal to the company.

Worthington’s efforts to provide employees with an array of wellness options helps keep the work force fit, happy and safe. And that can trickle down to the bottom line.

The Benefits of Wellness

“Our goal and purpose was to provide the safest work environment possible, reduce the number of injuries, and at the same time, if at all possible, give us an economic advantage over the competition by focusing on safety and cost control,” Leberfinger says. “Plus, at the end of the day, it’s just the right thing to do for people.”

It’s an approach that helped Fred Sorrell. Thanks to his 3 years of healthier living, he now works safer, too.
“I think it plays a big role,” he says of his health’s effect on safety. “My head’s clear, I feel good, I’m active, I’m watching what’s going on,” he says. “It plays a major role.”

Those benefits – feeling energetic, being more aware at work – might be difficult to measure, but they can have a big impact on the well-being of a company’s work force. And for Sorrell, it also let him know his company is willing to take care of him.

“They had me in mind,” he says, recalling his visits to the medical center. “It was not a money-saving thing. Their whole concern was me.”

Sidebar: Developing a Wellness Program

Ann Brockhaus, an occupational safety and health consultant with ORC Worldwide, works with dozens of corporate medical directors and offers an inside view of how companies are approaching at-work wellness. She says many companies are integrating their wellness methods by creating targeted programs based on the needs of a particular work force.

“These programs can be very specific and tied to discrete conditions with fairly modest goals to being quite comprehensive,” Brockhaus says.

She offers the following tips for companies working to implement a wellness program:

Conduct a health risk assessment (HRA). This tool is administered by a third party and gives the company a snapshot of where the working population stands health-wise. Later, when employees are involved in the wellness program, the initial and subsequent HRAs can be used as measurement tools. Brockhaus says conducting an HRA is the best first step for a company developing a wellness program.

Convince leadership a wellness program is worthwhile. Sometimes, Brockhaus says, differences between health and safety, human resources and benefits managers can be detrimental to program development. Getting everyone on board – especially upper management – is necessary to push a program forward.

Focus on the advantages. If creating such a program seems overwhelming, remember that successful wellness programs offer the potential for increased employee productivity, reduced turnover, economic gains, fewer injuries and improved employee morale.

Examine other companies’ approaches. Brockhaus also stresses the importance of using similar companies’ wellness programs as benchmarks to see what does and doesn’t work.

Small companies have options, too. While it might appear that only large companies have the resources to develop wellness programs, smaller companies also can make a difference in their employees’ health. Encourage employees to get flu shots, ask local nutritionists or health care workers to donate their time to speak at the company, display posters with health and wellness information, organize lunchtime walks and offer healthier food options in cafeterias, vending machines or break rooms.

“People can do anything from the simple and practical all the way up to the very sophisticated, cross-functional approaches to keeping a global work force well,” Brockhaus says. “There’s so much good that can be done.”

About the Author

Laura Walter

Laura Walter was formerly senior editor of EHS Today. She is a subject matter expert in EHS compliance and government issues and has covered a variety of topics relating to occupational safety and health. Her writing has earned awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), the Trade Association Business Publications International (TABPI) and APEX Awards for Publication Excellence. Her debut novel, Body of Stars (Dutton) was published in 2021.

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