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February 01, 2016
NIOSH launches Total Worker Health to integrate workplace safety and wellness

Each year in California, about 400 workers die from work-related injuries, and more than 450,000 suffer nonfatal occupational injuries or illnesses. California-specific cost figures are not available, but a recent national estimate placed the price tag for work-related injuries and illnesses at $250 billion each year.

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Although employers have made progress in recent decades by reducing occupational injuries and illnesses and controlling their costs, there’s clearly more to do. And getting it done may require a novel approach.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Disease Prevention is working on just such an approach. Total Worker Health® (TWH) is a method for integrating occupational safety and health protections and wellness programs in a way that aims to protect workers from occupational hazards, promote health, and prevent disease.

Essential elements of effective programs

The NIH is working with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to create resources employers can use to develop TWH programs. The NIOSH guide Essential Elements of Effective Workplace Programs and Policies for Improving Worker Health and Wellbeing (http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/twh/essentials.html) is already available to help employers design and implement a program.

If you want to integrate your safety and wellness programs, you’ll need to:

Identify all relevant systems. What are your existing programs and policies that apply to workers’ safety, health, and well-being? A comprehensive program should encompass all of your programs that address behavioral health, mental health, physical health, and safety management.

Eliminate recognized occupational hazards. Occupational hazards are not the only factor affecting worker safety and health, but they are the one the employer has the greatest direct control over. NIOSH considers eliminating recognized hazards in the workplace “foundational” to TWH principles.

Be consistent. Did you know that blue-collar workers who smoke are more likely to permanently quit smoking after a worksite tobacco cessation program if workplace dusts, fumes, and vapors are controlled and workplace smoking policies are in place?

Workers recognize when an employer’s policies are inconsistent. And it makes the employer look hypocritical to say, “We want you to stop smoking, but we don’t care if you keep breathing the toxins that benefit us” or “We want you to get enough sleep, but we also want you to work 20 hours of mandatory overtime each week.”

Tailor your program. A program that doesn’t account for your unique workplace conditions won’t get the job done. Account for not only the specific hazards your workers face but also any workforce factors (do you need Spanish-language training?), location factors (how does geography affect your emergency planning?), and worksite-specific factors (how old is your building?).

Practice Tip

If you’re going to integrate your EHS and wellness programs, make sure that all parts of the integrated program meet all applicable regulatory requirements.

3 ideas to get started

Integrating your environment, health, and safety (EHS) programs with your wellness programs is a process; it’s not something you’ll accomplish overnight. But NIOSH has suggestions for steps you can take today:

1. Ask workers for input. Workers may know what keeps them from creating a work/life balance, following safe work practices on the job, or maintaining optimal health. Ask them whether they:

  • See connections between their safety at work and their health;
  • Think a low-cost, feasible solution exists for any problems they see; and
  • Have privacy concerns related to integrating safety and health.

2. Offer workers more control. Workers who have greater flexibility and control over their working conditions and schedules have lower stress levels and greater productivity. Teach workers how they can use the flexibility and control you’re offering to enhance their safety, health, and well-being.

3. Cross-pollinate your programs. Get your EHS and wellness staff together for lunch or planning sessions. Encourage them to share their fundamental principles with one another, set goals together, and develop programs that benefit the goals of both departments. If additional personnel work on different angles of the problem (for example, a benefits coordinator or employee assistance program manager), invite them in as well.

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