Symposium broadens view of worker safety and health

By Jennifer Hall

Published on May 11, 2015

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Over 100 practitioners, employers, academics, and students joined together to learn about Total Worker Health™ (TWH) and incorporating TWH concepts into their lives, jobs, and worksites at the 17th Annual Occupational Health Symposium organized by the UI College of Public Health’s Healthier Workforce Center for Excellence (HWCE) and the Heartland Center for Occupational Health & Safety.

In the opening keynote, Dr. L. Casey Chosewood, director of the NIOSH TWH Program, emphasized the importance of looking at the broader picture of worker well-being and quoted Sr. Michael Marmot from an Institute of Medicine report: “It is unreasonable to expect people to change their behavior when the social, cultural, and physical environments around them fully conspire against them…” This involves creating a supportive work environment that removes less traditional workplace hazards that put workers at risk for injury and illness, such as psychosocial stress, prolonged sitting/lack of movement, fatigue, poor work organization, and unhealthy food choices.

Workers and Stress

In particular, presenters emphasized psychosocial stress as a major workplace hazard, one that the World Health Organization estimates costs U.S. employers $300 billion in costs related to absenteeism, turnover, accidents, and presenteeism (attending work while sick).  The American Institute of Stress also reports that health care costs are 50 percent higher for workers under stress, and NIOSH cites 40 percent of employees report their job is ‘very or extremely’ or ‘often or always’ stressful, and 50 percent say they need help with managing their stress.

“When employees are stressed, they are less likely to engage in healthy behaviors,” stated Diane Rohlman, director of the HWCE. “They are also more likely to take longer to return to work after injury, have increased risk for disease, musculoskeletal disorders, and, potentially, workplace injuries.”

To minimize worker’s stress, employers need to consider risk factors that go beyond the workplace, then make appropriate changes to the work environment, policies, organization, and leadership to minimize those risks.

The Total Picture

Closing Keynote Bonnie Rogers, DrPH, COHN-S, LNCC, FAAN, from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, concluded with a quote from NIOSH and call to participants, “A key goal of Total Worker Health is to have employers and workplaces as involved partners in promoting the overall health of employees and in preventing workplace injuries, illnesses, and deaths. To do this they must think about the total picture of what happens to their employees when they are at work and when they are away from work.”

To learn more about psychosocial stress and how to minimize risks in the workplace, check out the latest HWCE video, where experts and employers share low-cost strategies for creating a less stressful workplace.  The HWCE has also developed resources to help employers create safe and healthy work environments that promote the comprehensive well-being of workers both on and off the job, including a HWCE video series, low-cost TWH employer strategies and TWH activities and challenges.