Reuniting health and safety

Why the two departments shouldn’t be separate entities


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When I entered the workforce many years ago, health and safety were commonly under one department or “officer,” overseeing all matters related to these two highly-connected, vitally important topics. When new health and safety initiatives were rolled out, employees attended mandatory training, which was considered by employers and employees alike as an important and acceptable part of doing business.

But over the years, the health and safety division of many companies lost its cohesiveness and became two separate departments. Safety is an area that, when not operating at 100 percent, can result in companies losing significant amounts of money when accidents occur.

Accident-related expenses such as absenteeism, reduced productivity, stress, morale problems, employee turnover, increased insurance rates, workers’ compensation claims, fines and lawsuits can have a serious impact on organizations.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “Slightly more than 3 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses were reported by private industry employers in 2013. And “the final count of fatal work injuries in the United States in 2013 was 4,585.”

On the other end of the divide, health became “health and wellness,” which gave the medical community a great opportunity to educate people on the difference between the two when people asked, “Aren’t health and wellness the same thing?”

The way I prefer to differentiate the two is that health is a state of being free of illness or disease, while wellness is the ability and desire to take care of oneself, including possessing a positive and able mindset.

Fast-forward a few more years and “health and wellness” became, simply, “wellness.” Unfortunately, during this time, wellness slowly became limited to a program within the company, if it hadn’t been eliminated altogether, and participation in the program became optional and challenging.

This is where many companies went down an unfortunate path, costing these same companies substantial amounts of money, as the crucial link between health and safety had been broken.

While some employers may feel they are saving money by not earmarking funds for wellness initiatives, the lack of an effective wellness program is costing them large amounts of money every day. Employees who are not working at 100 percent are a liability to the company.

Providing education, motivation and resources helps employers close this costly gap. Studies show that effective wellness programs are a great investment, helping employers to realize a return of $2 to $6 for every $1 invested in improving the wellness of their employees.

Health and safety have an important cause-and-effect relationship. Most workplace accidents are preventable and can be traced back to employee error. When employees are educated and motivated to improve their health, they are less likely to cause, or be involved in, an accident at work. Likewise, safety is negatively affected by employees who are less than healthy, due to a wide variety of issues, such as:

• Lack of sleep

• High stress

• Reduced physical fitness

• Working under the influence of alcohol or drugs

• Working with an illness or injury

• Inattention and distraction

Unfortunately, when health and safety are treated as separate entities, this important relationship becomes much less visible, and the wellness of employees appears to be less critical. In addition, employee participation in safety initiatives tends to be mandatory, while participation in wellness initiatives has become optional, further compounding the problem.

When health and safety are integrated, or at least overlap, both the employer and the employees benefit from increased collaboration and communication. Additionally, the “two heads are better than one” philosophy, combined with the focus on improving health to reduce accidents, can significantly cut costs and increase profits. What can your company do to create a win/win with health and safety?

Carol Phillips, a Manchester-based corporate health and wellness expert, is the award-winning author of “52 Simple Ways to Health.” She can be reached through healthdesignnh.com.

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