How to improve company performance by integrating health and safety

In the workplace, the concepts of health protection and health promotion have long existed side-by-side. The former places primary focus on worker safety, the latter on worker health.

What’s become more evident in recent years is that making a distinction between the two is not the best way to optimize either. Companies improve their employee and financial performance when the perspectives are aligned.

“Research has shown that development of a true ‘culture of health,’ at a company is dependent on integrating employee safety and employee health,” says Dr. Michael Parkinson, senior medical director for Health and Productivity at UPMC Health Plan and UPMC WorkPartners. “Keeping employees healthy and keeping them safe, are essentially the same thing.”

Smart Business spoke with Parkinson about the importance of integrating employee health and safety.

What is health protection?

Health protection traditionally encompasses all aspects of on-the-job worker safety. In recent decades, through the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), there’s been an added emphasis on understanding ways to make the workplace safer.

And, partly as a result, OSHA-reported worker deaths have dropped from 38 per day in 1970 to 12 per day in 2012. Through increased use of risk assessment, safety training, improved protective equipment, better mechanical safety engineering, etc., worker safety has improved. However, the underlying health status and behaviors of the workers themselves was overlooked.

What is health promotion?

Health promotion is an umbrella term for workplace wellness programs. Employers introduced worksite health promotion programs to keep employees healthier and to reduce health care and productivity-related costs. These could include health risk appraisals, biometric screenings, employee events such as weight races, the introduction of on-site health coaching and smoking cessation assistance or weight-loss programs.

How does the term Total Worker Health™ apply to these concepts?

NIOSH created the national Total Worker Health™ initiative to enable employers to combine safety — traditionally very prominent in any company’s leadership and management consciousness — with health promotion efforts that are historically underappreciated as a contributor to safety and company overall performance.

According to an American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine study, ‘a growing body of evidence’ indicates that there are significant benefits when health and safety policies, practices and programs are integrated. Healthier employees are safer employees and vice versa. Both contribute to the organization’s bottom-line effectiveness and success. Health impacts safety. Safety impacts health.

When wellness programs emphasize correcting workplace hazards, they are likely to get greater acceptance. For example, poor dietary habits, lack of physical activity and obesity all contribute to mental errors at work, higher rates of musculoskeletal disease and disability and workplace safety risks. Healthy behaviors are every bit as relevant to corporate success as a safety harness for job-specific risks.

What are keys for success for an integrated program?

Leadership and management should realize, and clearly state, how poor health impacts workplace safety and job performance. Engaging teams of employees to identify practical actions to improve health and safety should be solicited. Obtaining the active engagement of management once some actions have been identified is critical.

The integration of workplace wellness and occupational health requires a holistic approach to the health and well-being of each employee and their family.

Worker health cannot be addressed solely by reducing workplace hazards (safety) nor does it make sense to make individual health paramount (wellness) and ignore how work-related demands, stressors and conditions contribute to poor health. A Total Worker Health™ perspective can make our companies and employees the highest performing and most successful.


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