The Injured Worker

Safety and health professionals must remember that workers are individuals, not statistics, and their protection is a primary duty.

A worker has been injured! Two broken wrists. Oh, that isn't serious. How often do occupational safety and health (OHS) professionals take the opportunity to reflect on the "injured worker"? Think about a worker who has two broken wrists caused by an accident in your workplace. As far as some in your organization are concerned, and as shown in your lost workday statistics, this injured worker represents a small blip on the charts. Your boss may be concerned only because rehabilitation of this worker is expensive, and the "number of days without an accident" banner must start over at zero.

Now, imagine for a moment that you are this injured worker. Your hands do not work because of devices screwed into your arms. You have to go to the bathroom; you need assistance to use the toilet. You have to blow your nose; you need assistance. Your dignity is gone. Your independence is gone. You are depressed, angry and afraid. Your spouse and family bear the burden.

The number of visits allowed by workers' comp for you to visit the occupational therapist is insufficient to regain full use of your hands. You also have chronic pain. With hands that don't work correctly and chronic pain, how will you earn a living? What will become of you and your family? You are only a blip on the statistics charts.

Remember: This worker is not just a blip on the statistics charts. Protecting the well-being of each worker is not only core to our function as health and safety professionals, but it is the right thing to do. The trend today is to focus on costs and benefits, statistical trends, efficiency, productivity and quality. However, as health and safety professionals, we should never lose sight that protecting the well-being of each individual should be our primary concern.

At our universities, we do a good job of teaching students about technology, statistical analysis and regulations needed to protect workers from injury and illness. The use of technology and regulations is necessary and appropriate. There are fewer "blips on the statistics charts" because of the use of technology and regulations.

However, technology has its limitations. I'll use my own experience as an example. My arms, wrists and hands will never fully heal from my own motor vehicle accident. Thus, it is difficult for me to use the computer keyboard. This manuscript is being typed by the latest version of the best "dictation software" using the hottest Pentium computer. Even with that, the phrase that I spoke to the computer, "injury and illness" (six sentences above) appeared on the computer screen as "injury and Elvis." The take-home lesson is that technology can only get you so far.

There are other lessons that must be learned before we can really be effective in protecting the worker. The first thing that we must learn is that we must be compassionate. Compassion is not a trait one learns in school. However, ours is a people-oriented field, and caring for people is as essential as being knowledgeable, skilled and resourceful.

Another lesson is that ethical, professional practice is an essential part of good industrial hygiene. Ethical virtues can best be acquired by habit. An ethical person deliberately chooses to do what is noble and right for its own sake.

Many of you have heard me argue that we must be engaged in the "business side" of management if we are to be effective OHS professionals. I have said that we must know how to speak the language of business and how to do cost analysis. There is nothing paradoxical here. By doing the noble and right thing when we practice our profession, and understanding and speaking "business language," we can be most effective. We can protect workers and improve profits at the same time.

Relating to Workers

Just as we need to be engaged in the "business side," we need to relate to workers and other workplace stakeholders. It is important to understand the perspective of affected workers when we develop injury and illness prevention programs. Hourly and salaried employees tend to resist programs that are imposed on them if they do not have a chance for giving input. Employees who are exposed to hazards can contribute a lot to identifying health and safety problems and solutions. If your program is not involving front-line workers, union officials, engineers, operations, human resources and other appropriate personnel, you are missing the boat.

A good example comes from the Environment, Health and Safety Department of Intel Corp. Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, said, "We are deeply committed to the environment, occupational health and safety." He continued that the corporation is committed "to prevent all injuries in the workplace, and that includes our suppliers. In 1998, we adopted a new corporate business principle that requires our suppliers to provide EHS training for their employees and to have appropriate safety and health programs in place internally. Since this program began, we've seen strong safety improvements for supplier personnel working on Intel sites. In 1998, work-related injuries for supplier personnel dropped 73 percent from 1997, and the number of days lost from work dropped 67 percent."

So there is a way to be compassionate and ethical when dealing with employees, suppliers and contractors and to simultaneously increase profits. This is one of the great challenges of our profession. This challenge has been met by some of the members of AIHA. We must learn from them.

The AIHA mission statement reads: "The AIHA promotes, protects and enhances industrial hygienists and other occupational health, safety and environmental professionals in their efforts to improve the health and well-being of workers, the community and the environment."

My core belief is that AIHA exists to further the protection of the worker. AIHA's influence in promoting worker protection programs, in voluntary and regulatory efforts, can have a great bearing on the future of our profession. It also can have a great bearing on preventing debilitating injuries, disease and death by influencing decision-makers in industry, government and voluntary organizations to do the right thing.

One of the most important challenges facing the leadership of AIHA is to help balance activities designed to strengthen professional and association health with those activities that are specifically designed to improve worker health and safety. In that way, we can recognize and use the collective power of the members of AIHA to really make a difference.

Contributing Editor Steven P. Levine, Ph.D., CIH2 (Comprehensive Practice & Chemical Aspects) is president-elect of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. He is a professor of environmental health sciences and co-director of the University of Michigan WHO Collaborating Center for Occupational Health and adjunct professor at the Institute for International Health of Michigan State University. This article included significant contributions from Jonathan Rosen (N.Y. State Public Employees Federation), Dave Stangis (Intel Corp.) and Paul Moss (Dade Behring Inc.).

The opinions expressed in this column have not been debated nor endorsed by the AIHA Board of Directors.

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