by Carlye Fabrikant, MS, CWP, ACE-PT

What is the connection between safety and wellness, and what is our responsibility as wellness professionals to consider safety in our programming?

I have been working in employee wellness for over 20 years, and have always thought about the connection between safety and wellness for our staff. What I’ve noticed, and what research often shows, is that those employees who get injured are more likely to be categorized as moderate to high risk, and also often present with comorbidities. According to a 2020 analysis, comorbidities and poor worker health are a huge contributor to Worker’s Compensation claims. It’s also been found that obesity, depression, smoking and stress are four healthcare issues that lead in driving up Worker’s Comp costs.

It stands to reason that an unhealthy employee is more likely to get injured due to poor lifestyle habits, fatigue, lack of strength/flexibility/balance, medication side effects, and so on. Depression and lack of emotional wellness is also a huge piece of the puzzle, now more than ever as we attempt to recover from a pandemic. Many employers are making employee mental health and well-being a priority…or at least they should be. Employees who do not have the skills to cope with an injury, or who have experienced a traumatic event resulting in injury, and file a Worker’s Comp claim, will need help to address any mental health issues before they can safely and productively return to work. According to the Colorado Division of Workers’ Compensation, 3-10% of all workers with injuries may experience delayed recovery related to behavioral health issues. So that is now not just the employee’s issue, but it’s also an issue for the employer who has to wait even longer for that employee to return to the job. A great quote from this article resonated with me:

“The number of work comp claims you file isn’t just an indicator of how safe your work environment is; it’s a direct reflection of the overall well-being of your entire workforce.”

The first step is to recognize that a connection must be made between safety and wellness. But how can we integrate safety into our wellness program? As wellness professionals, we have so much to consider and give our attention to. Remember that healthy employees can be safe employees, and that there is a direct connection between the two. Considering various contributors to an employee’s well-being, and engaging them in your programming and in health ownership, can assist in decreasing injury risk, or at least minimize the challenges associated with injury if an accident does occur.

Strategies to Consider

  1. Offering comprehensive programming that addresses all six dimensions of wellness.
  2. Evaluating medical claims to determine the greatest risks for your population. Knowing if cancer, MSK issues, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, etc are on your frequent claims and/or high cost claims lists can help you drill down where your focus should be, and what your employees will need help with preventing and managing.
  3. Analyzing worker’s compensation claims to understand what types of injuries are prevalent. Job specific injuries are common (for example, working in a factory versus a classroom versus an office can present different risks). In addition, the level of focus on safety measures implemented by the company can also determine risk.
  4. Providing education on how to be safe at work given the environment and type of work being done. Knowing what risks are common given the environment, and then providing frequent training on how to stay safe in the workplace, can help. In addition, training the body for the type of work that is required can also be helpful (for instance, if you have to walk up stairs frequently for your job, then adding stair climbing and leg strengthening exercises to a regular exercise routine can be very beneficial).
  5. Drawing the connection for employees between their health and their safety. Helping employees understand that their health can directly impact their chance of getting injured on the job, as well as the length of their recovery process if they do get injured, can be instrumental in determining the outcome. Addressing their mental health and well-being is also critical; when we are unable to manage everyday minor stressors, and then a major stressor like an injury occurs, the effect can be devastating and long-lasting.

Any and all of the above that you can start doing today can be tremendously effective in minimizing the risks. While these actions can seem overwhelming, and may take more manpower than your program can afford, know that any effort you put forth to keep employees physically and mentally safe will benefit them. Heading in the right direction is the goal. Merely acknowledging employees’ safety risks is a great place to start.