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  • Writer's pictureJohn Suter

Total Worker Health Simplified

Total Worker Health is a hot topic, but it can be a little hard to wrap your head around. How is it different from your current safety program? Here is a simple explanation with a high impact example.

Total Worker Health combines three approaches to worker well-being which have traditionally been practiced by three different professions:

  • Safety (safety professionals)

  • Wellness (health professionals)

  • Psychosocial Work Environment (human resource professionals)

Each of these professions has coordinated with the others in the past, to varying degrees in different organizations. The goal of Total Worker Health is for them to truly work together as partners.

(This three-point summary of Total Worker Health is based on the SafeWell program from Harvard University’s Center for Work, Health and Well-Being, which is one of NIOSH’s Centers of Excellence for Total Worker Health.)

An example of a high impact issue that cuts across these three silos is Fatigue Management. Fatigue is a key contributor to many workplace accidents. It also increases the likelihood of many illnesses, including heart disease, obesity and depression. Irritability and lack of motivation can cause personal and family problems. Businesses also suffer through reduced productivity and work quality.

An analysis of 27 research studies found that workers with problems sleeping were 62% more likely to have a work-related injury. Overall, 13% of work-related injuries were attributed to sleep problems. Other studies have found similar results, especially in jobs that require critical thinking, decision-making, alertness, physical coordination and/or stamina. A study by the National Safety Council found that 43% of employees don’t get at least 7 hours of sleep.

Traditional safety programs have addressed fatigue prevention, mostly from the standpoint of reducing on-the-job fatigue. Prevention of physical fatigue is one of the main goals of workplace ergonomics. Prevention of mental fatigue and associated human error is often addressed by the related discipline of human factors engineering.

Worksite wellness and health promotion programs also commonly address fatigue. For instance, the diagnosis and treatment of sleep apnea can have tremendous benefits. An analysis of 10 research studies found that employees with sleep apnea are almost 100% more likely to have a work-related accident, and are up to 700% more likely for the subset of work-related driving accidents. CPAP machines are generally effective in treating sleep apnea.

The third area of Total Worker Health, the psychosocial work environment, also has a strong impact on fatigue. For instance, the design of shift rotation schedules, shift start times and staffing levels have a direct effect on employees’ sleep. The National Safety Council reports that the risk of an accident on the night shift is 30% higher than on the day shift, and that the risk is 36% higher on the fourth consecutive night shift than it is on the first one.

None of these fatigue-related issues are easy to resolve. Shift schedules affect production. Obesity increases the risk of sleep apnea. Ergonomic redesign of workstations takes time and resources. Many other factors also affect employees’ ability to get restful sleep, such as work-life balance, family care obligations and stress. Additional resources and professionals from within and outside the company may need to be consulted.

This is why the TOTAL in Total Worker Health is critical – no one person or one department can simultaneously address all these issues, and this was just to tackle fatigue!

Total Worker Health requires an investment of the whole company … for the well-being of everyone.

For more information on Total Worker Health, feel free to leave a comment below or click the Contact button above.

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