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 the two.

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.

A Duke University study showed that obese employees filed twice as many workers’ compensation claims and had seven times higher medical costs from those claims as non-obese workers.

A University of Texas-Austin study showed that for workers with major injuries, a higher body mass index was associated with higher workers’ compensation claim costs, according to Science Daily .

Of these workers, average claim costs for obese workers were more than double that of normal-weight workers. According to the article, average costs for workers with major injuries were:

  • $470,000 for obese individuals
  • $270,000 for overweight individuals
  • $180,000 for normal-weight workers

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.

Research by the National Council on Compensation Insurance showed that claims with a comorbidity diagnosis resulted in about three times the number of medical visits as those without comorbidities and a six-fold increase in costs per claim.

Another study by Harbor Health Systems that examined the impact of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, addiction, mental health and tobacco use showed that:

  • Days of total temporary disability were 285 percent higher for claimants with multiple comorbidities and 274 percent higher for claimants with addiction than a control group.
  • Surgery rates increased 140 percent for claims involving obesity when compared with a control group.
  • Incurred total costs increased 341 percent for claimants with multiple comorbidities when compared with a control group.

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 you 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 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 guide illustrates easy exercises and stretches that employees can do during the workday. For more, read our Wellness in the workplace CompTalk .

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 on February 25, 2015, and updated on January 5, 2017.

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