Excelling at Safety Means Making Worker Well-Being a Priority on the Job Site

Excelling at Safety Means Making Worker Well-Being a Priority on the Job Site

Leaving the worksite pain free for activities outside of work is critical for a healthy worker and a safer jobsite. 

Some construction workers embody the "too tough to worry about it" mentality which includes an attitude that nothing terrible could happen to them. With this kind of demeanor, discussions of wellbeing can seem out of place. The common perception is that seasoned construction workers should be able to handle health and emotional issues, bravely soldiering on until the work has ended. The truth is that health and well-being are important for all workers, regardless of their industry. Many companies, specifically construction, need to shake off the old perceptions and start taking a proactive approach in managing and protecting the wellbeing of its workforce and aligning strategies found in the NIOSH Total Worker Health (TWH) approach to make a perfect business sense. TWH is defined as policies, programs and practices that integrate protection from work-related safety and health hazards with promotion of injury and illness prevention efforts to advance worker well-being.

Construction Trends

Injury Rates. Despite advances in construction safety the industry continues to face high rates of fatal and non-fatal injuries and accidents among its workers. Injury rates are 71 percent higher than any other industry with 1-10 workers injured annually and, unfortunately, 50 percent of those serious injuries go unreported.

Addiction. With staggering injury rates, it’s not surprising that workers in the construction industry are most likely to misuse prescription opioids compared with other employee groups according to the study published by the Center for Drug use and HIV/HCV Research at the New York University College of Global Public Health. The high rate of injuries and the physically demanding work can lead to treatment or self-treatment with pain medication, alcohol or other addictive drugs.

Aging Workforce and Health. As with all industries, the baby boom generation is moving towards retirement and fewer young workers are entering the industry. As a result, the average age of a construction worker is increasing and will continue to do so.

Chronic Disease. This is an epidemic in the U.S. with six out of 10 Americans having one chronic disease and four of those six having two or more chronic diseases.

Silent Killer. In 32 states, the risk of suicide among male construction workers was five times greater than the rate for all fatal work-related injuries in 2018, according to the CDC. We have always known construction work to be physically and mentally demanding. We can no longer sit back and watch chronic injuries and illnesses force many experienced trade laborers to retire early, change professions or increase safety risks on your jobsite due to the health status of the workforce.  A growing body of evidence suggests that significant benefits can occur when health and safety are integrated, that’s why the most successful programs are those that blend a holistic approach to form a continuum that can lead to a true culture of health and safety.

Strategies

Wellness Promotion. Focusing on health factors (nutrition, stress, sleep, physical activity, etc.) that are not directly related to the work, but can still be impacted by being in the construction industry can make a positive impact to your workforce. By implementing a wellness plan for your next project, it can lead to improving overall health, increasing productivity all while improving safety. Toolbox talks on health and wellness, wellness challenges, health fairs, healthy vending or food truck options are great ways to promote health and wellness on the jobsite

Emotional Health Resources. In the construction industry, mental health awareness and suicide prevention are part of ensuring a safe job site for every single worker. If your company is committed to safety, then it must also be committed to mental health; the two go hand in hand. Now is the time for the industry to STAND UP for suicide prevention and address it as a safety and health priority. Make sure your workers have resources available to them for emotional health and bring awareness to the project’s commitment to suicide prevention. Addressing the stigma of reaching out for help must be paramount.

Injury Prevention and Opioids. Unfortunately, nearly any job in any industry can be the source of discomfort or pain for workers. According to the CDC, the most common treatment for chronic pain over the last 20 years has been opioids. Because of the addictive nature of the drugs, they can be a danger to both the injured workers and the workplace, particularly if the worker is operating equipment or machinery. Stopping the demand for opioids starts with preventing the need for them. That means preventing pain before it starts and preventing workers from being hurt on the job.

Getting Ahead of Injury

Companies are beginning to look at investing in ergonomic programs, training, and at providing a resource that assists with the early onset of musculoskeletal issues through early intervention.

Early Intervention programs emphasize the early reporting of soreness or discomfort, prior to a major disfunction or documented injury. Quite simply, the strategy addresses an ache before it becomes a pain and a stress before it becomes a strain. Programs operate under the umbrella of “evaluation and first aid” as defined by OSHA, versus addressing the risk through traditional physician consultation. These programs are typically staffed by an Industrial Athlete Coach (licensed physical therapists or certified athletic trainers) that are musculoskeletal experts.

These licensed personnel provide first aid care of musculoskeletal discomfort defined by OSHA which includes ice or heat, over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, elastic tape or non-rigid splinting, postural balance stretching and massage. In numerous case studies, nearly 90 percent of all reports of discomfort using these types of early intervention solutions can effectively address and resolve a worker’s discomfort.

However, addressing symptoms alone may fail to address why the discomfort occurred in the first place. Having an early intervention resource that works to review work methods, identify the root cause of the discomfort, provide the employer ergonomic guidance or employee coaching on how to avoid further injury can help stop the cycle of pain - ultimately reducing the need for the opioids in the first place.

Business Case for TWH

Blending a TWH approach can also be an effective recruiting tool.  It's a tool that will make it clear that you're invested in your workers as people. Giving your workers/contractors the tools to perform at the top of their game mentally and physically is crucial to your project and the company's success. Workers who leave the job site pain free with “gas left in the tank” for activities outside of work are critical for a healthy worker and safer jobsite.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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