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TOTAL WORKER HEALTH: System can help ensure you have a safe workplace

Bruce Morton is a senior loss control consultant at the Milwaukee office of Marsh & McLennan Agency. He can be reached at bruce.morton@marshmma.com.

Bruce Morton is a senior loss control consultant at the Milwaukee office of Marsh & McLennan Agency. He can be reached at bruce.morton@marshmma.com.

I recently took a call from a construction company client about an employee who had questions about mental health benefits on the company’s insurance program.

Not only was this employee stressed, but his wife was also stressed. I was able to get him in contact with one of our employee health and benefits-account managers who was able to help his family sort out the benefits that they were going to use.

As a safety professional, I know that stress is a safety matter. According to the American Psychological Association, 60% to 80% of workplace incidents can be attributed to stress. Other research tells us that about 44% of a typical workforce suffers from stress, an estimated 10% uses marijuana before coming to work, and 31% use alcohol excessively. That’s why Total Worker Health – a holistic approach to worker safety, health and well-being, is important.

Total Worker Health, or TWH, is defined by the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health as policies, programs, and practices that integrate protection from work-related safety and health hazards with the promotion of injury and illness-prevention efforts to advance worker well-being. Standard occupational safety and health protection programs have primarily been about ensuring that work is safe and that workers are protected from the harms that arise from work itself.

TWH looks at how job-related factors such as wages, work hours, workload, benefits, dealings with colleagues and supervisors, and access to paid leave affect the well-being of workers and their families. In addition, health and other factors be considered.

TWH includes an inventory of relevant work factors, health behaviors and health outcomes. Are work factors like long hours, increased overtime, and inflexible schedules increasing stress and fatigue? What’s the effect of heath behaviors like substance abuse, unhealthy eating and lack of exercise? How are health outcomes like untreated depression, musculoskeletal injuries and high blood pressure contributing to risks?

In addition, what is the actual experience of absent employees, injury risk, and insurance costs? These all can be hard to judge and measure on a construction jobsite. However, through open interaction and talking with your employees you can get a good sense of what is really going on day to day. I just recently had a talk about mental health while walking a jobsite with a client. This talk continued into the job trailer with others and then into a LinkedIn post that had almost 1,000 views.

How does TWH work? It starts, not surprisingly, with leadership from the top. If top management takes ownership, and is directly involved, an entire organization will take notice. Also critical is fostering respect and ensuring every employee is encouraged to participate and offer advice.

Second, design a workplace around safety, including organizational-level interventions to protect workers’ safety, health, and well-being. Personal-protective gear and safety training are essential but do not always deal with workplace conditions that cause or contribute to worker illness and injury.

Equally important is replacing unsafe, unhealthy working conditions or practices with safer, health-enhancing policies, programs, and management practices – including employer-sponsored benefits, flexible work schedules, and health education and resources. Harder perhaps, but vital, is encouraging and supporting health and lifestyle changes for your employees.

Third is winning engagement from your workforce. Encourage involvement by your employees in identifying safety and health threats, contributing to program design, and participating in all aspects of program implementation and evaluation.

We can accomplish this with toolbox talks, daily huddles, job meetings and stand-downs. Workers need to be involved and not passive participants. Identify safety and health hazard that are most important to front-line employees. Do not be afraid to share a personal story – it might just help someone else out.

Fourth, ensure the confidentiality and privacy of workers. Your employees need to feel confident that their privacy will be completely respected. This means limiting access to important data and de-identifying participant data. Of course, it also means observing all relevant local, state, and national laws intended to keep private personally identifiable information and health-related information. It’s important to communicate with your employees all the steps you are taking to safeguard their privacy.

Finally, look at the bigger picture of how your organization shapes worker safety and health outcomes. Conduct an initial assessment of existing workplace policies, programs, and practices concerning safety, health and well-being and decide how they relate to one another. This includes HR policies on health insurance, paid sick leave, family leave, vacation benefits, retirement, and disability.

It also includes safety and health policies and procedures for identifying hazards, reporting work-related injuries and illnesses, and filing workers’ compensation claims. Bring together leaders and teams with overlapping or complementary responsibilities for planning and priority setting. For example, hold joint meetings on safety. Do all employees know what is included is their benefits or EAP?

An employee who is stressed out and seeking help is possibly at high risk of suffering an incident, and that be affecting his performance. Promoting his health and well-being through Total Worker Health makes sense for supporting your employee, and fostering a safe, productive workplace.

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