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ASSE: Integrating Fitness into Safety

By tightly linking safety, fitness and supervisor leadership, companies can achieve high rates of participation in physical fitness activities and take steps to curb rising health care costs, a safety and health consultant told attendees at the American Society of Safety Engineers' annual conference in New Orleans.

Fred Drennan, president of Team Safety Inc., noted that the work force is aging, with half of the nation's 146 million workers over 40.

"As people age, they become more sedentary," he said, adding that 60 percent of Americans are overweight and out of shape. And many times, he said, worker fitness declines but job tasks remain the same. This contributes to costly cumulative trauma disorders.

Drennan said the worksite is a "great place for positive lifestyle changes," but pointed out that worksite wellness programs often fail. He said onsite gyms only get 5- to 15-percent participation. The reason, he said, is such fitness programs are not integrated into the management process. He also pointed out that fitness is usually left out of traditional safety programs, which focus on unsafe acts and conditions.

Drennan said the key elements of an integrated fitness, safety and leadership approach include:

  • Senior management initiates and supports the culture change.
  • Supervisor participation is guaranteed by having them involved on a daily basis in safety and fitness activities. "Employees tend to adopt the supervisors' attitude about safety and health," he said. Drennan advocates a mandatory daily safety meeting. This meeting includes a Strength and Flexibility Exercises (SAFE) routine in which employees gather for physical exercises while the supervisor uses a flipchart to provide training on safety and health topics.
  • Supervisors and the team are audited frequently to ensure they apply what they've learned. He said they should be audited at least monthly during the first year of implementation.
  • Recognition must be given to supervisors and teams for fulfilling the requirements of the safety program. At the same time, said Drennan, there must be "consequences" if supervisors fail to implement the program. "In the absence of consequences, there is no behavior change," he said.
  • Successful programs are team-based. Drennan said teams create ownership and accountability, help to develop a trusting environment and allow team goal-setting.

Drennan said the SAFE program his company advocates is designed for the general population. In order to get participation of employees, the majority of them must be able to perform the stretching and strengthening moves "without strain or pain and integrate it into the daily safety routine."

Drennan presented a case study in which a 3M manufacturing facility adopted the SAFE program. The plant had the fourth-worst safety record of 3M's 40 manufacturing facilities. Supervisors and team leaders were trained in six basic leadership skills: supervisor as trainer, scorekeeping, giving positive recognition, team building, setting tolerance levels, and giving constructive feedback.

Employees were broken into 35 teams of six to 12 employees each. Employees started each day with a 10-minute safety meeting that integrated flexibility and strength exercises and also included safety training using a flipbook system. The flipbook provides a safety message on a single topic and prompted leaders to solicit any employee safety concerns. Supervisors and teams were audited at least monthly.

After a year, employee flexibility improved by 88.7 percent, employees incurred zero musculoskeletal injuries and the plant to moved to the top third of the 40 plants in safety performance.

Addressing the issue of whether employers should be responsible for employee health, Drennan said they have to be "if they want to keep their aging work force healthy and productive."

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