Workplace injuries are expensive. The 2017 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index reported that U.S. businesses spent more than a billion dollars each week in direct Workers' Compensation costs attributable to serious but nonfatal workplace injuries. Employers pay not only these direct costs but also the indirect costs of lost productivity, lowered employee morale and increased costs of training replacement workers. Most non-fatal workplace incidents boil down to employees who are tired, stressed, unhealthy, sick or uncomfortable.
Here we'll take a look at how minor changes and workplace wellness initiatives can help reduce injuries in the workplace and improve worker safety.
Employing Workplace Wellness Initiatives to Improve Workplace Safety
While the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) broadly defines workplace health programs (a.k.a. workplace wellness programs) as any health promotion or protection strategy implemented at the worksite that is “designed to encourage the health and safety of all employees”, workplace wellness programs are often perceived as focusing on two main areas: improving overall worker well-being and reducing chronic health care costs. However, as the CDC’s definition implies, workplace wellness programs can contribute to the health and also the safety of a company’s workforce.
A well-orchestrated workplace wellness program can help employers build a culture of safety within their organization. At the same time, targeted initiatives can address some of the key factors that contribute to high workplace accident rates.
By looking beyond disease management and engaging in proactive measures designed to change behaviors and raise awareness, employers can leverage their workplace wellness programs to reduce injury rates and improve the safety of their work environment.
Human Causes of Workplace Injuries
The cause of some workplace injuries can be directly linked to poor workplace design and lax safety standards. However, human factors, or performance influencing factors (PIFs), such as inattention, haste, noncompliance, and miscommunication play a role in injuries as well.
Fatigue is one of the factors that is frequently identified as a contributing cause of on-the-job accidents or injuries. A study cited by Safety and Health magazine’s Sarah Trotto in “Fatigue and Worker Safety” indicated that workers who slept less than five hours a day had an injury rate more than three times that of workers who slept between seven and eight hours during a sleep cycle. Further, the National Safety Council reports that fatigued drivers are three times as likely to be involved in a car crash when compared to their well-rested counterparts. (Read: Fatigue Management in Night Shift Workers and Employer Risks.)
Stress also plays a significant role in workplace safety. In his article titled "Managing Change & Stress," published by The American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), safety expert Michael Topf writes that employees who are stressed may perform poorly and overlook job duties, become distracted, or use drugs or alcohol. These behaviors can result in “incidents, injuries and health/environmental challenges” in the workplace.
Another, sometimes overlooked, cause of workplace injuries is presenteeism. Presenteeism is the term used to describe situations in which employees are present at work, but due to illness or other distractions, they aren’t fully productive. Showing up to work when not at their best can put these employees at risk for more than lost productivity. A 2012 study published in the American Journal of Public Health titled “Paid Sick Leave and Nonfatal Occupational Injuries” found that workers with access to paid sick leave were 28% “less likely than workers without paid sick leave to be injured” on the job.
Finally, improper physical execution of tasks or poor ergonomics lays at the root of many musculoskeletal injuries. The BLS reported that “musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) such as sprains or strains resulting from overexertion in lifting” accounted for 31% of all cases of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses that required days away from work in 2015. MSDs also required an average recovery period of 12 days, compared to an 8-day average for all non-fatal incidents.
In “How to Boost Workplace Safety Efforts by Connecting Wellness”, SFM’s Ceil Jung writes, “Workers’ Compensation data makes the connection between wellness and safety abundantly clear.”
Workplace wellness programs allow employers to address the human side of safety through education, encouragement and empowerment.
Workplace Wellness Efforts Help Improve Workplace Safety
So, now that we know the human issues surrounding accidents, how can we improve workplace safety through wellness efforts? Here are a few tips.
- Communicate the risks of fatigue and teach employees to identify the signs of physical, mental, and emotional fatigue through posters, newsletters and other media. Ensure that company policies allow employees to act to recover when they are fatigued.
- Use quizzes, polls, or other interactive tools to educate employees about the physical and psychological dangers of prolonged stress.
- Empower employees to manage their emotional and physical health by providing biometric tracking devices that detect the signs of weariness or stress.
- Cultivate a workplace culture that encourages open communication with the wellness team. Allow workers to anonymously report job-related stressors and propose solutions.
- Help your employees to reduce both fatigue and stress by creating time and space for mindfulness or meditation breaks during the workday.
- Offer discounted gym memberships or on-site opportunities for exercise, such as extended lunch breaks so your employees can shake off stress with a physical workout.
- Provide adequate paid time off and reduce the risks of presenteeism by encouraging employees to rest and recuperate from illnesses at home.
- Conduct guided stretching sessions at the start of each work shift to help workers warm up their muscles.
- Actively monitor employee compliance when it comes to best ergonomic practices and provide regular reminders on the risks of musculoskeletal disorders.
- Furnish on-site health care services such as flu shots, blood pressure checks, Vitamin D testing for workers who work inside, weight loss help, diet counseling, smoking cessation measures, and other measures for employees’ convenience.
- Increase overall worker health and reduce stress by serving healthy foods and snacks, sponsor health-focused food vendors, or host a farmers’ market at your worksite. This will ensure that workers don’t have to choose between fast choices and healthy choices when they need to grab a bite to eat.
Well and Good
The bottom line in workplace safety and wellness is that employee wellness is the foundation for allowing workers to perform at their best and safest. The U.S. Department of Labor’s “Business Case for Safety and Health,” states “Employers that invest in workplace safety and health can expect to reduce fatalities, injuries and illnesses. This will result in cost savings in a variety of areas, such as lowering workers’ compensation and medical expenses, avoiding OSHA penalties, and reducing costs to train replacement employees and conduct accident investigations.”The DOL further notes that a healthy workforce is a productive workforce. Implementing a well-managed workplace wellness program that addresses employees’ health and safety allows employers to do well financially and while they do good for their employees.