Industry Trends and Solutions to Improve Worker Readiness
The moral and legal obligations to provide workers with a safe workplace are just two of the reasons companies should want to keep their employees safe. However, another big motivator for businesses is how extraordinarily disruptive and costly workplace accidents, injuries and illnesses are for their operations.
For example, Liberty Mutual estimated that U.S. employers paid over $1 billion per week in workers’ compensation for disabling workplace injuries in 2018 (see www.osha.gov/businesscase). The actual price of work-related injuries and deaths is much more than just workers’ compensation, insurance and medical bills; it has a broad impact on society and the economy.
The National Safety Council estimated that the total economic cost of work-related deaths and injuries in 2020 was nearly $164 billion for the nation, companies and individuals. In addition, the NSC estimated that injuries requiring medical consultation cost an average of $44,000, while the cost per workplace death is approximately $1.3 million (see https://injuryfacts.nsc.org/work/costs/work-injury-costs/).
And according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 45 fatalities within the utility sector in 2021, up from 28 in 2020 and 39 in 2019 (see www.bls.gov/iag/tgs/iag22.htm#fatalities_injuries_and_illnesses).
A lot has changed over the past few years that may affect these numbers. For example, companies are now dealing with a shrinking workforce, supply chain issues, increased demand, and a workforce that prioritizes health and well-being more than ever. As a result, companies that want to continue reducing workplace accidents must begin exploring and implementing new strategies to improve worker safety, health and well-being.
The Correlation Between Health and Wellness and Workplace Safety
Traditional safety and health best practices, like safety inspections and hazard awareness training, have helped to significantly reduce workplace injuries over the past several decades. And in recent years, a new understanding of additional factors contributing to workplace accidents has become increasingly apparent.
More companies are opening their eyes to the connection between employee health and well-being and workplace injuries, illnesses, turnover, absenteeism and productivity. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, job factors like working hours and relationships with management and co-workers can affect worker health and well-being.
These job factors can contribute to health risks including cardiovascular disease, obesity, sleep disorders and depression. In addition, poor employee health and well-being can also lead to other issues, such as drug and alcohol abuse, workplace violence and inattention that can lead to accidents in hazardous environments.
This new understanding means safety and health programs have begun to shift toward a more holistic approach to workplace safety. As a result, modern safety programs not only focus on eliminating workplace hazards and providing safety awareness training but also offer employees resources and training to improve their health and well-being.
These concepts are so widely accepted within health and safety circles that even the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends this new approach. NIOSH’s Total Worker Health program (see www.cdc.gov/niosh/twh/default.html for more) demonstrates this evolution within safety by merging traditional safety principles with best practices for improving employee health and well-being through workplace policy and design.
Health and Well-Being Risk Factors
The days of employers not concerning themselves with employee health and well-being are over. Even if they don’t want to accept their role in contributing to employee health and well-being, employers can’t avoid how the two factors affect their business. So, what risk factors for employee health and well-being do employers need to seriously take a look at? There are three: physical health, mental health and substance abuse.
There is a health epidemic in the United States today. Six in 10 American adults have a chronic disease, and four in 10 have two or more. Poor nutrition and lack of physical activity are leading factors contributing to these disturbing numbers (see www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/infographic/chronic-diseases.htm).
While it’s easy for employers to dismiss diseases like diabetes, cancer and heart disease as non-work related, employers still feel the effects. According to the CDC, chronic health conditions significantly impact employer health insurance and premium claims, with costs continuing to rise yearly in the U.S. The agency also estimates that employees with chronic health conditions and behaviors negatively affect workplace productivity due to absenteeism, which costs U.S. employers $36.4 billion a year (see www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/publications/factsheets/workplace-health.htm).
Over the past few years, there has been an increased focus on and understanding of mental health, including how it affects the workplace and employee well-being. Unfortunately, a stigma attached to mental illness has prevented some individuals with these illnesses from speaking up and seeking help. Thankfully that has changed significantly in recent years, with more people realizing how common mental health issues are and how they can affect every aspect of someone’s life, including work.
This growing acceptance means employers and employees are beginning to speak more about mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Still, some employers are hesitant to acknowledge how the workplace conditions that they have created may be contributing to the state of employee mental health.
Poor work-life balance, long working hours, monotonous tasks and workplace culture can impact employees’ mental health. Not feeling mentally healthy can affect morale, contribute to absenteeism and make employees less productive. Additionally, when employees are distracted due to their mental health issues, they are more likely to be involved in incidents and accidents because they are less focused on their tasks.
The nature of hazardous and physically demanding professions means that workers sometimes have nagging injuries for which they have never sought proper care. As a result, these individuals can get stuck in a cycle of pain that they manage with drugs, alcohol or both.
If they seek the help of a doctor, they may be prescribed opioid painkillers that relieve the pain and allow them to get back to work sooner. But these medications only mask the pain; they do not address its root cause. Not only that, but due to the addictive nature of opioids, a temporary solution can become a lifelong addiction.
In addition, industries like the utility sector can be high in stress, be physically demanding and require extended hours that sometimes take employees away from their family and friends. To cope with stress, loneliness, and physical aches and pains, some turn to drugs and alcohol.
What Can Companies Do?
Physically demanding jobs often produce injuries that are musculoskeletal in nature. On-site or on-call workplace athletic trainers and physical therapists can be a solution for organizations looking for ways to manage and prevent these types of workplace injuries. Urgent care or the emergency room might not be the best option if an employee has a mild sprain and strain or similar concern. From OSHA’s perspective, if an employee receives a prescription or time away from work, that may warrant recordability.
However, a medical professional trained in managing workplace aches and pains could instruct the employee on first-aid measures (e.g., ice, heat, anti-inflammatories, massage, taping, stretching, strengthening, proper body mechanics), which often deliver the same benefits while typically getting to the root cause of the discomfort.
A Preventive and Total Worker Health Approach
A company’s goal should be to prevent injuries from happening in the first place – not to merely react to them. While injury response is essential, it is just one piece of the puzzle, and a more proactive approach can bring better results.
Early intervention specialists are a modern, complete solution offering the same benefits described above, with the addition of injury prevention and employee health and well-being training.
Most early intervention specialists are physical therapists, athletic trainers or occupational therapists with a deep understanding of musculoskeletal disorders, ergonomics, body mechanics and stretching. That training is crucial for injury prevention and treatment because, according to OSHA, musculoskeletal disorders are the most common workplace injury in the United States. Injury prevention training means specialists can address worker aches and pains and provide immediate, on-site care.
Specialists are also trained on the total health of workers, which includes physical and emotional aspects. Wellness coaching helps workers identify and improve health and lifestyle risks while also bringing awareness and support to mental health issues.
The Future of Workplace Safety
Companies that want to improve their safety culture and performance while also attracting the best employees must consider their current approach to employee health and well-being. A total worker health approach to safety is the future, and those who refuse to adopt it are in danger of being left behind.
About the Authors: Kyle Schmoyer is a contributing writer at Atlas Injury Prevention Solutions (https://atlas-ips.com). He is also a safety director with more than 10 years of experience in the construction, oil and gas, manufacturing and chemical industries.
Kris Corbett is a director at Atlas Injury Prevention Solutions. She has 25 years of experience working in wellness, safety and injury prevention within the construction, utility and manufacturing markets.
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