Companies see advantages from linking safety and wellness.
Workers shifted their focus when salsa music filled the air. They got up from their workstations on the plant floor and started moving, to the delight of Dr. Joseph Van Houten.
"Exercise programs help employees on the manufacturing line give relief to various muscle groups," explained Van Houten, senior director of environment, health and safety at Johnson & Johnson, who was visiting the health care products and pharmaceuticals company's plant in San Angelo, Texas, when the ergonomic break began. "It is a way to keep people engaged, gives them energy, and keeps them focused."
The break also illustrates the link between safety and wellness at Johnson & Johnson, a leader in corporate wellness. Safety staff members are responsible for workplace evaluations, including reduction of ergonomic risks. Linking safety and wellness programs seems natural; both affect worker health and an employee's physical ability to do a job. Too often, though, health specialists look at personal health factors, while safety specialists focus only on at-work issues.
Viewing wellness and safety separately fails to take into account the correlation between individual health risk factors and occupational ones. This divided approach can get in the way of a comprehensive view of worker health, said Dr. Paul Schulte, director of the Education and Information Division at NIOSH. "Any kind of occupational safety or health problem can have both workplace components and personal risk factor components," Shulte said. "Wellness programs and occupational safety and health programs need to have links to each other."
Schulte was one of the authors of a study published in the American Journal of Public Health that looked at the interaction between occupational and personal risk factors and their impact on health and safety among workers. The study presented 32 examples of how worker health can be affected by a combination of job-related factors and personal ones.
"The study reaffirmed our initial thinking that there are a lot of examples where personal and workplace factors interact," Shulte said. "There is great evidence and growing acceptance that employee wellness programs are good ideas and they pay off. We're suggesting making these wellness programs more comprehensive and grounded in what's actually happening in the workplace. In some ways that's groundbreaking, and others it just seems like the logical thing to do."
When combined with job requirements, personal health choices and ailments can exacerbate a health condition. For example, a person who is obese has an increased risk for osteoarthritis when doing a job that requires kneeling. In another example, the paper noted that both smoking and exposure to loud noises, which raises a person’s risk for high blood pressure, increase a person's risk for heart disease. It also cited a study that found that a shift worker is at increased risk for obesity even when following a healthy diet.
"If a shift worker is becoming obese, it may be that shift work is leading to obesity rather than bad food choices. A person may work in a situation where they don't get appropriate meal facilities," Schulte said. "There are a lot of different ways that the workplace impacts what we think are personal risk factors or personal choices, when in fact people are constrained by their work. It needs to be seen holistically."
Also subscribing to an inclusive view of worker health is Dr. Casey Chosewood, the senior medical officer of Total Worker Health, a strategy from NIOSH that looks to integrate worker protection and health promotion. "We think of work and health as being inextricably linked," Chosewood said. "You can't optimize one without the other."
A company that encourages employees to take the stairs, for example, is not only supporting exercise but also can see fewer slips, trips, and falls because employees are better conditioned, have better balance, and are used to walking on different surfaces.
"There's a natural connection between health and safety, especially in the workplace where additional demands are placed on them," Chosewood said.
Workers also face challenges from doing sedentary work, he notes, and can face both health and safety risks when a lack of movement and exercise impacts their physical condition. "Just getting folks out of their chairs on a regular basis is an important intervention," he said.
The idea of combining health and safety programs is not without controversy, however. Schulte cautioned that combining personal health choices and workplace safety should not be used as an excuse to shift responsibility or blame an employee for a workplace injury. An employer still has responsibility for a safe work environment. "It doesn't absolve employers from providing a safe and healthy workplace. That's critical," he said.
Chosewood sees no rift between workers and employers when it comes to combining wellness and safety. It's almost always seen as a positive from both sides. "There are a lot of things labor and management don't agree on, and this is one of those things most view as a win-win," he said. "It translates to bottom-line savings and real benefits for workers, as well."
Con-way Freight, which provides local, regional, and transcontinental transportation services, has seen significant results from a program emphasizing injury prevention, employee well-being, and engagement. The less-than-truckload carrier with 286 locations in the United States and Canada reduced injuries by 28 percent and accidents by 14 percent in 2011. It also saw reductions in weight and tobacco use and an increase in weekly exercise.
"Healthy employees are safer employees -- that's what it comes down to," said Gary Frantz, Con-way's director of corporate communications. "We're giving employees tools to improve their health, and it doesn't cost them anything."
Con-way has wellness coaches at 107 of its largest facilities, and 11,500 of its 21,000 employees take advantage of services such as weight management, injury prevention, fatigue management, health risk prevention, smoking cessation education, and information about nutrition and exercise. Programs such as daily stretching routines also make an impact.
"All of that tied together rolls into an employee being healthier. And if they're healthier, they're going to be safer," said Bruce Moss, vice president of human resources at the company. "It helps people understand that top of mind is being preventive, avoiding accidents and injuries."
Con-way approaches its program from the employee's perspective, letting them know that the impact extends beyond the workplace. "Our goal is to have people embrace wellness in such a way that they understand this company wants to make sure I come home safe every day and, beyond that, want to make sure I eat right, exercise, and have proper rest so I can have a good quality of life," Moss said.
A focus on employee well-being is also firmly embedded into the culture at Johnson & Johnson. The consumer health care manufacturer has emphasized employee health since the 1970s. One of its current goals is to foster an engaged, health-conscious, and safe workforce.
"Health and safety are embedded in the processes, systems, and policies that govern Johnson & Johnson practices around the world," said Dr. Fikry Isaac, the company's executive director of global health services. "It's all linked to our value system, our commitment to employee safety, health, and well-being."
The company's approach to wellness follows its model of embedding safety into the workplace. "It looks at getting people to make it part of the day-to-day operation," Isaac said. "It's not an add-on, not an extra."
The company keeps momentum going through communications that include health and safety tips. It taps into observances such as World Cancer Day and continues to offer events such as walking challenges and weight loss programs. As it guides employees toward optimal health, J&J helps employees become aware of their health risks and offers tools for obtaining better outcomes. Health champions support the programs at local work sites, and senior leadership makes it clear wellness is a priority.
"That helps us overcome barriers from people who say, 'It's a nice idea, but we're too busy,'" Van Houten said. "That kind of pushback is common, and having senior leaders who are engaged and supportive is a way to get beyond that."
Health and safety representative work closely together at each location and at the organizational level. Although Isaac and Van Houten are in different groups on the company's organizational chart, they collaborate and work closely to support the overriding goal of employee well-being. Support of a culture vested in wellness and safety requires investment, Isaac noted, but it leads to fewer injuries and absences and shows employees that the company values them.
"It reflects the notion that the company cares about me," he said. "Caring means they're stopping the production line for five to seven minutes to allow me to recover. You re-energize and are more productive.
"This is how we operate. Good health is good business."
This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.
Terri L. Dougherty, PHR, SHRM-CP, is an Editor on the Human Resources Publishing Team at J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc., in Neenah, Wis. She specializes in information on drug testing and marijuana. She is also the editor of the company's LivingRight® Health and Wellness Awareness Program. For more information, see www.jjkeller.com.