Workplace injuries and illnesses have a multitude of causes, but the potential outcome is the same – unhealthy employees who may not be able to work. To achieve the goal of maximizing the health of employees, UL and others have studied a seemingly simple concept: the integration of a company's health and safety functions.
When workers are ill for extended periods of time, their absences cost their employers money. Based on surveys of nearly 100,000 full- time workers, the Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index estimates $24.2 billion in productivity is lost annually because of poor worker health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 75 percent of health care costs are linked to chronic conditions.
Workers who are injured on the job also are a major draw on company productivity and costs. OSHA estimates 4.1 million U.S. workers suffer a serious job-related injury or illness each year. Lost productivity costs and medical expenses from these injuries have been estimated to cost the American economy about $250 billion annually. Consequently, corporate health departments exist primarily to promote the health of workers and lessen health-related absences, to the benefit of employees and the company's bottom line.
Health Impacts Safety
Recent studies support the idea that combining the health/wellness and safety business functions leads to better outcomes for worker health. This point was emphasized repeatedly during a June Leadership Roundtable, "Through the Eyes of the Executive: Creating a Healthier and Safer Workforce." It was the first-ever thought-leadership summit to explore the challenges and benefits of this idea. We learned there were plenty of both.
One of the roundtable experts, Ronald Loeppke, M.D., having developed much of his career in medicine, investigated how health is linked to workplace productivity. He contributed to a 2011 paper, "Workplace Health Protection and Promotion: A New pathway for a Healthier – and Safer – Workforce," devoted to analyzing the effects of the integration of health and safety policies.
This paper referred to various studies on the safety-health relationship in the workplace. One study reviewed the statistical evidence and showed growing rates of obesity led to an increase in accidental deaths at the workplace. Another illustrated that a wellness program for offshore oil employees led to a decrease in worker back injuries. Yet another showed that undiagnosed sleep apnea was associated with a higher risk of accidents among commercial drivers. A few studies linked poor eyesight with an increase in workplace accidents.
Loeppke and others showed that what sounded like an intuitive concept was supported by workplace studies: poor health is a statistically significant condition present in workplace accidents.
As Loeppke stated at the roundtable discussion: "Health impacts work and work impacts health. Workers with adverse health risk factors are more likely to sustain injuries."
Navistar, a manufacturer of commercial trucks, buses, defense vehicles and engines, created a comprehensive health initiative that linked the goals of health protection and health promotion. According to Loeppke, et. al., the incidences of injuries dropped to 455 in 2009 from 2,449 in 1998. At the same time, the company saw the rate of "controllable absences" from illness and injury drop 48 percent. Studies also have shown that reducing shift work to cut down on workplace sleep deprivation had the added benefit of improving employees' overall health.
Because the concept of combining workplace safety and health promotion functions both is intuitively attractive and factually sound, it begs a question about why these departments tend to be "siloed" and have separate staffs and goals. One obvious reason is a legal one. Federal law, primarily administered by OSHA, governs workplace safety, while no similar requirement exists for the promotion of health in the workplace.
However, businesses can use other businesses' health departments as role models for integrating health and safety performance measurements and to determine their effectiveness. They also can advocate for healthier lifestyles through incentives and program changes.
There are other challenges. The decrease in workplace injuries may lead some business leaders to prioritize this lower, citing a "why-fix-it-if-it-isn't broken" justification. Competitive pressures may put businesses in an intense need to increase production, potentially leading to safety shortcuts and increasing employees' workplace stress by requiring more hours.
Though the number of U.S. workplace accidents per year is at an all-time low, the cost of workplace accidents is rising at 16 percent year-over-year, according to "Workplace Health Protection and Promotion: A New Pathway for a Healthier – and Safer – Workforce," a 2011 paper by the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. A generational shift in the make-up of the U.S. workforce is to blame: an aging and less healthy population that is driving an increase in the medical costs of each accident.
As the Baby Boomer generation continues to age, workforces often will skew to include a higher percentage of older employees with an increased chance of chronic health conditions. Younger workers entering the workforce also are unhealthy by historical standards, further compounding the issue. Unhealthy workers not only contribute to more accidents, when they are injured, the cost for treating the workplace injuries is higher as their illnesses can complicate the treatment and extend the time before workers can return to being fully productive.
Companies interested in combining their workplace health and safety functions should take the following steps:
Use a holistic approach: Align health and safety, because they are not disparate functions. Design initiatives to incorporate both health protection (safety) and health promotion (well-being).
Get everyone involved: From health and wellness initiatives, to at-risk reporting and learning teams, the involvement of the entire organization cannot be understated or underestimated in its impact on performance improvement. The more successes that can be measured and reported, the more holistic the response is from management.
Create an overarching management structure: When safety and health management officials report to different executives or department heads, collaborative opportunities are lost or impeded. Creating well-established lines of authority encourages better communication.
Prepare for a new profession: Graduate and undergraduate business schools should have the support of business in redesigning curricula to incorporate new findings about the advantages of health and safety integration.
Make a commitment: Ensure that promoting health and safety is known as a primary company value and not viewed only as a cost factor.
Present the business case: Express value in terms senior executives understand. Adopt common terminology for key performance indicators. Senior executives know intuitively that healthy workers are more productive workers, but they need empirical evidence to justify an investment in comprehensive workplace health and safety programs. Reduce ambiguity.
Support a culture of continuous learning: By learning, we refer to an organization's ability to shift its focus from past accidents (lagging indicators) to include behaviors and conditions that create risk (leading indicators). When behavior change permeates an organization, it creates a sense of urgency. By looking for deviations and responding with vigilance, organizations can stimulate meaningful changes in systems and processes that help reduce the likelihood of accidents.
From the shop floor to the C-suite, more business leaders are realizing that the various departments involved in health and safety not merely are cost centers with a compliance-only mission. When the health and safety functions properly are integrated and managed, business leaders gain a safer, healthier and more productive workforce that improves their competitive position and drives overall business performance.
Todd Hohn, CSP, is the director of Global Workplace Health and Safety for UL, where he acts as the safety ambassador, delivering on UL's mission to promote safe living and working environments globally. Hohn is a U.S delegate for the creation of the new ISO 45001 global standard for Occupational Health and Safety, is the honors and awards chairperson for ASSE's Construction Practice Specialty and is a board member for HR.com, advising them on emerging health and safety issues.