How to boost workplace safety efforts by connecting wellness

By Ceil Jung, RN, BSN, CCM

In many organizations, workplace safety efforts are kept separate from efforts to promote wellness among employees.

If your organization treats them as two separate initiatives, maybe it’s time to start thinking about the connections between wellness and workplace safety.

Why safety and health are naturally connected

Workers’ compensation data makes the connection between wellness and safety abundantly clear.

For example, obesity can exacerbate or cause workplace injuries.

“Employees with overweight and obesity may have higher loss of work productivity as measured by absenteeism, short and long-term disability, and worker’s compensation compared to employees with normal weight,” Dr. Clare J. Lee told the Endocrine Society in 2023 .

The organization studied 719,482 employees with and without obesity. Researchers found that the percentage of employees with work loss, number of hours/days lost from work, and costs associated with productivity loss were higher among people with overweight or obesity.

For people with obesity compared to individuals with normal weight, the increase in annual costs were:

  • Absenteeism – $891
  • Short-term disability – $623
  • Long-term disability – $41
  • Workers’ compensation – $112

The connection between safety and health just makes common sense.

Published in 2023, a study from the University of Ohio found that obese employees were twice as likely to file workers’ compensation claims and the costs of those claims were more than double than those filed by employees without obesity.

The cost of comorbidities

In workers’ compensation, we call contributing factors like obesity, diabetes, hypertension, drug abuse (including alcohol and tobacco) and mental health issues “comorbidities.”

The presence of one or more comorbidities can significantly increase the cost of a workers’ compensation claim.

In a study from United Healthcare , researchers found that individuals with a comorbidity had longer recovery timelines. Take something as simple as a forearm fracture. The disability duration can span:

  • 43 days – typical without comorbidity
  • 62 days – diabetes coexistence

Another recent study, this one from the Workers Compensation Research Institute on lower-back pain recovery, found that injured workers often have comorbidities, with the most prevalent being hypertension, arthritis, sleep dysfunction, depression, and anxiety or panic disorders.

Aside from what the studies show, the connection between safety and health just makes common sense.

We’ve probably all tried some new physical activity, and wound up sore the next day because we weren’t used to it.

Well, the same principle is at work when an employee who lives a sedentary lifestyle decides to do something like lift a heavy box at work. This employee is more likely to get hurt than someone who is used to activities like exercising and lifting weights.

Resources to help connect wellness and workplace safety

It’s easy to see why joining employee safety and wellness makes sense. It’s tougher to figure out how to actually do it. Thankfully, many resources are out there to help.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Total Worker Health Program is one of the best. Their website offers guidelines for creating a program that integrates safety and health, case studies of success and much more.

A Campbell Institute report mentions ways some companies have connected wellness and workplace safety. Two examples are a medical monitoring program that originated as a safety effort and a “metapostures” program that teaches employees stretches that “strengthen muscles and lubricate joints.”

SFM offers free wellness resources that will help keep employees healthier and safer.

The Get Fit & Exercise program presents simple exercises your employees can perform to help prevent shoulder injuries. The Get Up & Move stretching kit illustrates easy exercises and stretches that employees can do during the workday.

For more, read our Wellness in the workplace CompTalk or other blog posts about wellness.

Whichever tactics you use, watching out for your employees’ health and safety is an important way to show them you care about their well-being and build a positive work environment.

This post was originally published in February 2015 and updated January 2017 prior to this latest version.

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