Employees are a company’s most important investment. When a team member gets sick or injured at work, getting him or her back to health is always a pressing priority. However, making sure that employees don’t get hurt or sick in the first place is always the main goal.
More than 3 million people struggle with some kind of serious work-related injury or illness annually in the United States. Millions of employees are exposed to environmental health hazards that could develop into health challenges in the years ahead. Estimates suggest that worker’s compensation claims add up to billions of dollars each week. And this doesn’t count the lost wages and other expenses, such as decreased productivity and the psychological challenges that are the results of dealing with an injury.
There is an industry — occupational health — that is entirely focused on helping businesses keep their workplace safe and healthy. Occupational health is designed to protect employees from potential risks and hazards on the job, assisting with everything from injury prevention to injury care.
Regardless of what type of business a company operates, understanding occupational health and having a program in place are key to reducing overall health costs, improving productivity and ensuring a safe workplace.
Understanding Occupational Health — What is it?
Historically, the focus on occupational health was centered primarily on those who did manual labor, such as factory workers. After the Civil War, many factories opened all over the United States, and this provided thousands of jobs for people. These factories, however, often employed young and inexperienced workers, and the workplace was riddled with safety risks.
A report published in 1872 by the Massachusetts Bureau of Labor highlights many incidents involving lost limbs or death resulted from inadequate equipment or physically demanding tasks. Factories were dirty and many had poor ventilation, which forced the workers to breathe toxic fumes and accumulated dust.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration was established to oversee and ensure that workers operated in safe conditions. Estimates suggest that after the inception of OSHA, the number of workplace fatalities plummeted by 65%. Proactively putting occupational health programs in place is a key component of creating safer and healthier workplaces.
According to the World Health Organization’s occupational health definition:
Occupational health deals with all aspects of health and safety in the workplace and has a strong focus on primary prevention of hazards. The health of the workers has several determinants, including risk factors at the workplace leading to cancers, accidents, musculoskeletal diseases, respiratory diseases, hearing loss, circulatory diseases, stress-related disorders and communicable diseases and others.
Employment and working conditions in the formal or informal economy embrace other important determinants, including working hours, salary, workplace policies concerning maternity leave, health promotion and protection provisions, etc.
For example, a company might notice increased carpal tunnel syndrome claims among its workers doing daily office work. The goal is to treat the existing injury but also to use occupational health programs to identify the risk of this condition and work to reduce it. As a result, the company invests resources in improving ergonomics.
The ultimate goal of occupational health is to prevent workplace-related illnesses and injuries through a variety of actions, including:
- Encouraging safety in the workplace through safer work practices.
- Ensuring that employees are using ergonomically proper methods and actions.
- Monitoring overall health in the workplace, and looking for opportunities for improvement.
- Supporting employees who are struggling with illness or absences related to sickness.
Occupational health helps employers look at their current environment and work to reduce health risks and stay compliant with evolving regulations.
The Risk of Workplace Injuries
Occupational health is designed to prevent and treat workplace injuries, but just how large is this risk? Workplace injuries occur on average every seven seconds. This quickly adds up to 510 injuries per hour, 12,660 injuries a day and 4.6 million injuries each year. The cost to employees is high for the pain, emotional impacts and struggle — but the cost to employers is high as well.
Estimates suggest that 104 million production days are lost annually due to workplace injuries. What’s more, many of these injuries can be prevented to avoid needless pain and suffering. Here are a few of the most common types of injuries:
- Sprains, strains or tears
- Soreness or pain
- Cuts, lacerations or punctures
For example, imagine that an employee is restocking an office supply closet. The employee is using a ladder and climbing to a high shelf to put away a ream of computer paper. As the employee climbs, she misses a step and comes down hard on her ankle.
When she visits the doctor, the physician determines that the ankle is seriously sprained, which could take four to six weeks to heal. Could this injury have been prevented? This is the question that occupational health works to examine, and it addresses putting tools in place to help that employee recover quickly and get back to the job.
This is just one example of a workplace injury, but statistically, the top three most common types of injuries that result in lost workdays include the following:
- Overexertion accounts for 33% of workplace injuries. This may include lifting or lowering and repetitive motions. For example, employees unpacking boxes might pull muscles in their back.
- Contact with objects or equipment accounts for 26% of injuries. This can include getting struck by or falling against an object or a piece of equipment. For example, a new employee might unknowingly stand too close to a heavy piece of machinery and get struck, causing serious injury and keeping him or her away from work for weeks and even months.
- Slips, trips and falls account for 25% of injuries. This might include falling to a lower level or even falling on the same level. For example, an employee might be carrying small boxes to another department. Navigating a set of stairs, the employee could miss one and injure his or her knee.
Companies need to safeguard against potential risks, but there are several professions and industries that have higher-than-usual occupational health risks, including:
- Public service (such as firefighters and police)
- Transportation and shipping
- Manufacturing and production
- Installation, maintenance, and repair
Even if your company isn’t included in one of these categories, it doesn’t mean that risk does not exist and that behavioral healthcare is not relevant. For example, an employee might miss days of work due to repetitive motions in the job, resulting in the need for an operation to correct carpal tunnel syndrome. All jobs have health risks, and the key to managing those risks is understanding what they are and putting the right resources in place to reduce those risks — and then handling issues more effectively and efficiently when they occur.
Types of Services Provided
Occupational health is designed to prevent health-related challenges in the workplace and also help employees treat any existing health issues. This area of health provides a proactive preventive approach to managing workplace-related issues and may provide a variety of services, including the following:
- On-site clinics. Services may include access and outreach to behavioral health specialists and tele-behavioral health services for employees.
- Workplace health-related screening tools may be provided for areas such as behavioral health, addiction and pain. Employee screening for stressful and dangerous occupations may also be provided.
- Absence and disability management. Fitness-for-duty evaluations that include a behavioral health component may be provided.
- Coaching and tools may be provided for employees’ overall wellness.
- Worker’s compensation. Customized and managed treatment plans for injured workers with pain and who use opioids. Also centralized care management with physicians and psychologists may be available.
Providing these types of services has many benefits for employees and their employers. Missing days of work can cause hardship for employees and employers. Understanding the benefits of occupational health can help companies communicate the value to employees and create a relationship that is healthy and collaborative.
Benefits of Occupational Health
Workplace injuries and illnesses cost employers approximately $60 billion annually. The costs for different types of injuries vary, but the cost to businesses of overexertion is about $13.79 billion annually in direct costs. The cost to companies of employees being struck by equipment is about $4.43 billion, and falling on the same level costs companies around $10 billion annually. One of the major benefits of implementing a strong occupational health program is helping reduce workplace injuries and mitigate the risk. Other benefits include the following.
Reduced expenses. Occupational health specializes in understanding the types of injuries that employees face and focuses on helping employees get better and back to work. This helps companies reduce overall expenses and assists employees with getting the exact care they need to treat the injury.
Worker’s compensation. Occupational health programs clearly understand the worker’s compensation claims process and understand the importance of clearly communicating with all those involved in the process.
Safety. This type of program can aid in creating preventative measures to ensure that the workplace is safer. For example, employers might require pre-employment drug screening to make sure that employees operating heavy equipment or driving vehicles are doing so safely. An employer might also require physicals and other medical checkups.
Prevention. One of the primary goals of occupational medicine is prevention. Prevention programs are designed to help minimize the risk of occupational health issues and prevent employees from becoming sick or injured on the job. They may include health assessment and other wellness programs to assist employees in specific circumstances with remaining healthy.
Working with an occupational health provider that has a wide variety of experiences to help employees get back on their feet more quickly is useful in keeping employees safe and secure on the job.
Setting Up Employees for Success
A solid occupational health program can help a company improve employees’ safety before their first day on the job. For example, pre-placement physical exams and pre-employment drug screenings can make sure that new hires are the right fit to safely perform their job tasks.
Some companies also use pre-placement physicals to understand a candidate’s ability to complete physically demanding work. Ensuring that an employee is up to the physical demands of a job is critical to preventing potential injuries. This empowers companies to hire the right person for the right job.
Setting up employees for success also includes preventative measures, including things such as the following:
- Health screenings
- Medical surveillance exams
These processes can help employees avoid work hazards and minimize the risk of injury. Regular health screenings, also known as preventative exams, can also help employees identify potential issues sooner and proactively get treatment.
Employees working with hazardous materials may also benefit from medical surveillance experts, who can help companies reduce worker exposure to occupational hazards and lower the risk of health issues. For example, workers may be exposed to hazards such as toxic chemicals or extreme noise. These medical surveillance exams will help safeguard workers by implementing consistent safeguards to ensure that employees are operating with their maximum health in mind.
Moving Forward in Great Safety
Companies are dedicated to helping make the work environment as safe as possible for employees. Employers want to ensure there are minimal potential hazards and that employees maximize their health. Accomplishing this requires the careful consideration of an occupational safety program. Which program is best for your employees, and what can it do to help reduce risk?
With the right program in place, employees will feel safer and more cared for by their employer. They will know that their employer cares about keeping them healthy in the workplace and is dedicated to their well-being and safety on the job.