Oregon OSHA Health and Safety


December 2015

Total Worker Health

Wellness programs that keep workers safe

Imagine you are the head of a company whose productivity hinges on keeping employees safe and healthy. Your company already furnishes the proper safety equipment. And it just launched a monthly newsletter informing workers of their responsibility to lead healthier lives.

Good to go, right?

Not so fast.

Turns out, employees sometimes feel stressed out and distracted. As a result, they forget to don those reflective vests. What’s more, your company’s break-room brims with doughnuts, soda pop, and other sugary treats. That new monthly newsletter doesn’t stand a chance against the daily avalanche of calorie-laden sweets.

The truth stings: When it comes to health and safety, your company has a lot more work to do. The lives of your workers and the productivity of your company depend on it.

Yet, there’s a roadmap for improvement: Total Worker Health.

Backed by a growing body of scientific research and supported by key government and industry leaders, the concept calls for a more comprehensive and coordinated approach to increasing workplace health and safety.

It’s a 24/7 approach that blends occupational safety and health protection with health promotion to prevent illness and injury among workers. Under a Total Worker Health system, employers show their commitment to their workers’ well-being in a variety of ways. Those include offering fresh, healthy foods and water in the break-room, creating opportunities for workers to move or exercise during the workday, and giving them time to gather their thoughts before they head out on a job.

You can’t put a dollar value on pride, quality of life, and a happy workplace, but it’s there. It has positive effects on productivity, camaraderie, and retention.”

~ Demetra Star, safety director, Fortis

Total Worker Health is not just another wellness program. And the concept goes beyond healthy food and exercise. It also involves employers and supervisors re-thinking how tasks are structured. That re-evaluation process includes ensuring that employees are working shifts that allow them to get enough sleep and assessing employees’ workloads to reduce stress.

The larger idea is to “go the extra mile and create cultures that don’t just prevent stress but that actually help employees thrive,” said Deborah Fell-Carlson, policyholder safety and wellness adviser for SAIF Corporation, Oregon’s not-for-profit, state-chartered workers’ compensation insurance company.

Going the extra mile by using Total Worker Health initiatives is no mere blue-sky idea. Oregon is a leader in putting the concept into practice. And multiple companies in the state have already implemented Total Worker Health strategies, with more projects in the offing.

Those strategies include everything from offering bike racks and showers in the office to building sustained fitness programs that come with incentives for employees. Such strategies are interwoven into a larger health and safety program that calls for robust compliance with workplace health and safety rules.

For Fortis Construction Inc., a Portland-based general contractor, Total Worker Health is a regular part of doing business.

The company has numerous programs in place, including an app that walks and talks workers through a morning warm-up routine, an annual summer-long fitness challenge, and company retreats that always involve physical activities. Company leaders walk the talk: They climb a mountain every year.

You can’t “put a dollar value on pride, quality of life, and a happy workplace, but it’s there,” said Demetra Star, safety director at Fortis. “It has positive effects on productivity, camaraderie, and retention.”

In adopting Total Worker Health initiatives, R&H Construction, a Portland-based commercial construction company, provides its employees with everything from biometric screenings and healthy breakfasts at job sites to advice from financial planners.

The company sees the financial stability of its workers as a component of their well-being.

It’s more than just safety, it’s more than just wellness. It’s the well-being of each employee.”

~ Karen Swanzy, payroll and benefits administrator, R&H Construction, Portland

Achieving results

The personal and financial costs of failing to improve health and safety practices pile up like cordwood.

The economic burden of occupational disease, injury, and death in the United States is $250 billion in direct and indirect costs, or 1.8 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, according to The Milbank Quarterly, a health policy journal.

In the transportation industry alone, the numbers are staggering.

A 2010 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that more than twothirds of long-haul truck drivers were obese. By contrast, one-third of U.S. working adults were reported to be obese. Obesity increases the chance for type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, heart disease, cancer, joint and back pain, and stroke.

And such health conditions can disqualify drivers from receiving or keeping their commercial driver’s license. That creates personal and financial hardships for employees. For companies, the results are fewer workers retained and higher losses in time, money and productivity.

In Oregon, as of Nov. 17, there have been 55 initial reports of workplace deaths. Of those, 23 were caused by falls, motor vehicle accidents, machinery accidents, and similar events. One worker committed suicide, and one worker died from a drug overdose. However, 30 workers died from so-called “natural causes” – heart attack, stroke, and other medical conditions. That means 60 percent of those 55 deaths happened at work, though they were not necessarily work-related.

Still, the question looms: Could a Total Worker Health program have prevented some of those deaths?

At Tradewinds Transportation, such programs are achieving success. In the past few years, the Albany-based freight hauler has made several changes. Those include dropping “Doughnut Fridays” in favor of “Fit Fridays,” with grab-and-go boiled eggs, fruit, yogurt, and other fresh, nutritious snacks available to employees.

Workers are losing weight. They’re able to concentrate better on the road. And the company’s turnover rate is well below the industry average.

Fit Friday healthy snacks at Tradewinds Transportation

Photo: Tradewinds Transportation

Tradewinds Transportation has embraced Total Worker Health, including dropping “Doughnut Fridays” in favor of “Fit Fridays,” with fruit, yogurt, and other fresh snacks available to employees.

“We really retain our employees,” said Heather Hayes, operations manager for the company.

Multiple studies confirm that Total Worker Health programs achieve positive results.

The return on investment in such programs ranges from $2.05 to $4.61 per dollar invested, according to studies in the American Journal of Public Health and Occupational Medicine, an international journal. Other studies show decreased tobacco use by employees, sustained weight loss in workers, and reduced worker blood pressure.

Walking trail at Tradewinds Transportation

Photo: Tradewinds Transportation

Workers are losing weight. They’re able to concentrate better on the road.

Partnerships are key

Total Worker Health isn’t new.

It grew out of actions taken in the early 2000s by the federal government. Those actions intensified in 2004, when NIOSH crafted an initiative called “Steps to a Healthier U.S. Workforce,” including a threeday “Steps” symposium. At the time, John Howard, director of NIOSH, said the initiative would “bring a new, more coordinated approach to achieving the goal of healthier, safer American workers.”

Today, that more coordinated approach is known as Total Worker Health – a NIOSH brand name and registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Among a handful of other states and regions in the nation, Oregon represents a leading laboratory of sorts when it comes to Total Worker Health. For example, NIOSH has designated SAIF Corporation as a Total Worker Health affiliate. Meanwhile, the Oregon Healthy Workforce Center – a NIOSH Center of Excellence in Total Worker Health – is a collaboration of many partners. They are: Oregon Health & Science University’s Oregon Institute of Occupational Health Sciences; Portland State University’s Occupational Health Psychology program; the Center for Health Research – Kaiser Permanente; and the University of Oregon’s Labor Education Research Center. Dede Montgomery is a senior research associate with the Oregon Institute of Occupational Health Sciences. She supports the institute’s outreach and education programs, and provides the institute with expertise in industrial hygiene.

“What helps in Oregon is that we have good networks of collaboration that help us when we’re trying to make some (Total Worker Health) adoptions,” Montgomery said.

To be sure, the Total Worker Health movement remains a work in progress. But Montgomery and other leaders are busy conducting research and spreading the word in hopes of getting more employers and workers on board.

And programs can be tailored to fit big, medium, and small companies, and different workplace situations.

“There’s no one size that fits all,” Montgomery said.

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