12 Steps to Increase Your Total Health

You can train yourself and achieve improved wellness by following tips in these dozen areas

Both wellness and workplace occupational health and safety (OHS) have benefits to employees and employers alike. While both can be implemented separately, there are proven additional benefits to combining the two programs into one overall Employee Health, Safety, and Wellness (HSW) Program where the total is greater than the sum of the parts. Combine your efforts in these 12 areas and enjoy improved wellness.

Readers will gain a list of areas to combine, where to start, and, most importantly, improved wellness by following the tips in these areas. As you read, here are some helpful considerations to help you focus:

  • Which wellness or health issues do I face?
  • Which OHS areas does my company face?
  • What can I do to improve my total health?
  • How can I get help from my company?
  • What will I use as my "yardstick" to measure myprogress?

Let's start with areas where this works. Here are a dozen aspects of OHS where combining wellness just makes perfect sense.

1. Obesity and ergonomics/cancers: Studies show that people who are overweight or obese (O/O) are more likely to have ergonomics problems1 and are more likely to have greater worker's compensation (WC) claims.2 Also, people who are O/O are more likely to get cancer, including breast, colon, lung, prostate, and others.3 Dump the pounds and lower your cancer and ergonomics risks. Ask your OHS person about workplace and home ergonomics and carcinogens.

2. Smoking and ergonomics, carbon monoxide, and asbestos: Studies have shown that smokers tend to have more ergonomics problems.4 Smokers also have higher levels of carbon monoxide (CO) gas in their blood. This puts smokers at greater risk of CO poisoning, depending on the level in their blood.5 OSHA Region 1 (the Northeast) investigated a fatality many years ago where a worker died of CO poisoning from a combination of three sources: CO from fork trucks, CO from smoking, and CO (in the blood) from methylene chloride (MeCl) exposure. MeCl, a common part of paint strippers, metabolizes in the body into CO. While none of the three sources individually was enough to be fatal, the combination of all three was enough.6 Smokers are 50-92 times more likely than non-smokers to get lung cancer from asbestos. Stop smoking to cut your risk of dying from other causes (in addition to tobacco). Ask your OHS person about ergonomics (again), CO, MeCl, and asbestos exposures at work.

3. Fitness and ergonomics: Fitness level and ergonomics are related—as one goes up, the other goes down (and vice versa).7 Because fitness "counts," ask your OHS person about advice on strength and flexibility training. Join a gym, take up yoga, do cardio.

4. Job activity level and prostate cancer: Job activity level and prostate cancer are also related (as one goes up, the other goes down).8 So men need to be more active in their jobs to cut prostate cancer risk. Ask your OHS person about increasing your activity level. Get up and walk around more if you work in an office. Take the stairs. Park farther away. Lots of little activities add up and do make a difference.

5. Exposures off and on the job—asbestos, CO, solvents, acids/bases, sensitizers, lead: It's pretty obvious. There are many chemicals and other hazardous substances that you can be exposed to at home and off the job. Asbestos in older homes, CO from our vehicles (and other combustion sources), solvents in cleaners and degreasers, acids and bases in cleaners; the list goes on and on. Ask your OHS person about products you use at home and what you should do to avoid exposures.

6. Healthy foods at work and obesity and cancers: We eat at least one meal at work, often two, and sometimes even all three in a day. Nutritional needs are at least one-half of the O/O problem in the United States. We tend to eat whatever is readily available to us, regardless of its nutritional value and our willpower. O/O is linked to several cancers and other chronic and costly health issues (diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, etc.). Ask your company about healthy options in the cafeteria, vending machines, etc.

7. Driving safety: Without even counting fatal accidents during normal work commutes, driving is the leading cause of workrelated fatalities.9 Whatever we can do to drive safer, the better. Ask your OHS person about safe driving training at work.

8. Genetic link to diseases and target organs of chemicals: There is a great saying: "Your genes load the gun—the environment pulls the trigger." For many of us, the gun is already loaded. We have heart disease, high blood pressure, various cancers, etc. in our gene pool, and so it's even more important for us to avoid environmental factors that are linked to those diseases. Some environmental triggers are the chemicals and other hazardous substances we're exposed to at work and off the job. Chemicals typically "target" certain organs, that is, they cause damage to specific organs. These "target organs" vary between chemicals. Some examples include asbestos, silica, and many mineral dusts, which target the lungs and respiratory system. Acetone and other solvents target the brain, central nervous system (CNS), skin, etc.Methylene chloride is also linked to the blood system and the liver (causing cancer). Benzene is linked to the blood system and causes leukemia. Lead has many target organs, including the brain and CNS, heart, kidneys, liver, and reproductive system (making it a "teratogen"). Ask your OHS person about chemicals and target organs. Look for this information on Material Safety Data Sheets, too.

9. Stress: Work-related stress is a common factor in employee surveys and complaints. The effects of stress on the body are many and varied. These include mental health, obesity, the gastrointestinal (GI) system, heart, endocrine system, tooth and gum disease, and diabetes, to name a few.10 Reducing stress (both at home and at work) is an obvious way to reduce health problems and complaints. Worker complaints about stress are often tied to a lack of control over their work and workload. If you're feeling stressed out (at work or home), ask about your company's employee assistance plan (EAP).

10. Home safety and work safety: More accidents occur off the job than on the job, and that's just to workers. It does not include non-workers (e.g., children and the elderly or infirmed). These accidents account for 25 percent more lost time than on-the-job accidents, too.11 Focusing solely on work-related accidents is getting at less than half of the problem and causes. Ask your OHS person about home safety.

11. Behavior-based safety and lifestyle changes: We are such creatures of habit, and many of us would attest to the cliché, "old habits are hard to break. "Whether they are safety-related habits at work (e.g., wearing my respirator) or personal health-related habits (e.g., eating a lot of fried foods), they impact our overall health and safety. Talk to your OHS person about safe behaviors at work and home.

12. Urban myths/Internet hoaxes: We all get them: an e-mail that warns us of some unknown hazard and implores us to forward it immediately to everyone in our address book. Of course, we also get them at our homes from well-meaning friends. The next time you get one, check it out first (before forwarding it) at www.snopes.com or other urban legend sites. Ask your OHS person about these when you get them.

Certainly, there are other areas where this makes sense. More studies will undoubtedly continue to demonstrate the overlap between work and home life and the obvious benefits of combining the two together. For now, focus your energies on these "12 tips to workplace (and personal) wellness." Be well!


1. Kort, M. and Baldry, J., "The association between musculoskeletal disorders and obesity." Australian Health Review, 2002; 25(6):207-14.

2. "Obesity Increases Workers’ Compensation Costs," Duke Medicine News and Communications, April 23, 2007.

3. "Obesity and Cancer: Questions and Answers," National Cancer Institute, March 16, 2004.

4. Jain, Vijay Kumar, "Smoking Related Musculoskeletal Disorders—A Review," Journal of Orthopaedics, 2006.

5. Nordenberg, D., Yip, R., Binki, N.J., "The effect of cigarette smoking on hemoglobin levels and anemia screening," Journal of the American Medical Association, Sept. 26, 1990; 264(12).

6. Interview with Douglas Lawson, Ph.D., CIH, former OSHA Compliance Officer, Region 1.

7. NIOSH Publication 97-141, "A Critical Review of Epidemiologic Evidence for Work-Related MSDs of the Neck, Upper Extremity, and Low Back," June 1997.

8. Krishnadasan, Anusha, Dr. et. al., University of California, Los Angeles, Cancer Causes Control, Feb. 2008.

9. NIOSH Publication No. 2003-119: "Work-Related Roadway Crashes—Challenges and Opportunities for Prevention," Sept. 2003.

10. NIOSH Publication No. 99-101: "STRESS . . . At Work," 1999.

11. University of Alaska Fairbanks, Safety Sentinel, 2000.

This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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