When people think of safety, we usually think of preventing the big “accidents”…fingers in machinery, falls from ladders, fires, and explosions. Safety is not just preventing accidents, though!
Our field is called occupational health & safety (OHS) for a reason…half of our field is “health”, but rarely gets considered because “safety” is easy to track. Cuts, falls, and bruises are easy to identify, categorize, and correct. “Health” is not so easy. Workers may not realize they’ve had any negative effects from a chemical exposure until years later when they no longer even remember getting exposed. Musculoskeletal injuries may progressively worsen or linger in the background of a worker’s life without a cause being easily identified. Hearing loss may not become evident until several years into audiometric testing when the damage is done, or after an employee leaves and they never realize they had a hearing loss.
Our role in business management is protecting employees. It just makes good business sense. When employees don’t feel well, they call in sick more often and succumb to illnesses easier. If you are frustrated with the endless bouts of flu season and COVID infections, why wouldn’t you try to make your employees healthier? When we hurt our bodies through poor ergonomics, chemical exposures, and without proper hearing protection, employees go home and suffer back or shoulder pain or ignoring the ringing in their ears because “it’s just part of the job”, or they are having chronic health issues that their spouse just knows is from some chemical they work with but can’t put their finger on it. Why would you not want to fix these issues?
Most people do not like taking risks. They will remain at their employer through many discomforts because they’d rather stay in the place they’re uncomfortably comfortable, compared to applying for new jobs, possible rejection, and the risk of accepting a job that they hate worse than their current one. This is quite possibly a big core of your long-term employees. If you already struggle with the employees who come and go, imagine if another competitor actively recruited your core employees promising more money and better working conditions. Improving your employee’s health is a great way to show you care while improving their quality of life…and increasing productivity!
Here are three core strategies I’ve implemented with great success for employers and clients.
Make healthy business decisions
Budgets are tight, but I’m not asking you to spend more money! As a matter of fact, I bet you will be excited to find that healthy business decisions can lead to a healthy decision for the business! Focusing on ergonomics might not cost you anything beyond someone’s time to learn, assess, and put some minor corrective actions in place. Corrective actions might be as simple as replacing worn ergo mats, adding a bar for employees who stand in one place to prop a foot on and change posture, or adjusting the height of a bench. These are often simple fixes that dramatically improve health and productivity!
Lean on your vendors
Creating a good working relationship with a local occupational therapist, massage therapist, chiropractor, nutritionist, and others who can help you with assessments, employee care, information, and resources can be a great way to build resources for your employees at little or no cost to you. Many vendors will even offer their services for free if it helps them build a client-base that appreciates what they offer, such as an occupational therapist who will teach employees proper body mechanics for free in exchange for being able to talk to employees about their other services, such as pre-surgery therapy for their elderly parents, physical therapy for old injuries, and health screenings for kids in sports.
In one instance, we had a vending machine company that provided us with snacks that were almost all unhealthy…chips, candy bars, soda, etc. We all know what happens after you eat sugar: you crash! How do you think that impacts production? I initially approached the account representative, who told me that we did not do enough business with them to warrant a refrigerated machine that would have healthier options. I went above them and spoke with the business owner, who promptly corrected the situation. They provided the us with two refrigerated vending machines with salads, soup, sandwiches, fruits, and other healthier options. And the machine was almost always empty before getting filled twice a week! It didn’t cost us a dime, employees appreciated the healthier options, the vending company easily made their money back, and employees were noticeably more productive in many cases.
Get better at industrial hygiene
Industrial hygiene is a topic in safety that we all know is there, but few know how to implement. Workplace safety typically addresses your safety and well-being here and now. Industrial hygiene is concerned about your health 10-years from now. Safety hazards, like injuries, are typically easy to identify. We can see and quantify machine guarding, fall protection, and lockout devices. Corrective actions are generally obvious.
However, industrial hygiene is the part of safety that “you don’t know what you don’t know” if you have not learned it. A missing machine guard is obvious. Putting the pieces together to figure out why everyone in your building is sick and nobody knows anything about air turnover, duct cleaning, UV and physical filters, or how some chemical vapors might be affecting workers unless somebody actually digs in, gets training, and assess your facility, can often be a frustrating experience that nobody even knows their fighting.
Do you know why firefighters have significantly higher rates of testicular cancer? If you ask a department, you will likely get a few amusing answers that can’t be repeated here (trust me on this), but the reason is quite simple. Most fire scenes or training grounds don’t have a place to cleanup and do your business. Firefighters take off their gloves that have carcinogenic soot that gets on their hands, they duck between buildings, and do their business before going right back to work. Different parts of your body absorb at different rates. Your groin absorbs approximately 10-times faster than your hands. So carcinogenic toxins go right from the hands, through the skin, and to the nearest organs. Does it stand to reason that if you have a manufacturing facility, simply educating your workers to wash their hands before and after going to the bathroom can prevent the cancer that many men fear the worst? How easy is that solution?
Did you know that there is no “cold-season”? People get sick during certain times of the year because of their home and workplace’s air quality (and vitamin D deficiency from low sunlight). In the colder north, the dry outside air leads to extremely dry indoor air. Bacteria and viruses proliferate much faster when humidity is below 40% or above 60%. When an HVAC system is designed to keep a building within that range, we’re healthier and comfortable. In the winter months, it’s not uncommon to find many buildings below 20% humidity, which not only encourages virus and bacteria growth, but our throat, nose, and lips get dry and susceptible to infection. Everyone in my home state of Minnesota knows the pain of dry, cracked, chapped lips well! If you assume your building’s maintenance crew knows that, or that anyone is even managing it, you are most likely wrong. A small investment in managing building humidity and simply educating employees through a post in the break room could dramatically cut sick time. We’ve long known in Minnesota that you don’t get sick from the cold air or going to the store without a coat and hat.
Invest in your workers’ safety and health! At Provenio, we’d love to work with your business to put those practices in place, work with healthcare providers such as physical therapists and chiropractors to help their customers or find partnerships with local industry or talk to employees to identify why they might be having chronic health issues (we’re not healthcare providers and cannot diagnose illnesses). Let’s focus on health and productivity!