Safety inspectors, managers, and other professionals are some of the most under appreciated pieces of the business world puzzle. In fact, many workers might not be able to even give an in-depth description of what exactly it is their safety counterparts do, but that doesn’t stop these individuals from being important (“That’s right!” I hear a chorus of safety pros yelling as they read this).
Unfortunately, the sad reality of safety work is that it’s hard to be 100% effective, regardless of how hard we try. Certain factors are simply out of our grasp, while others take so much time and planning to tackle that we may be too late by the time we implement an effective solution.
Safety professionals on LinkedIn are no strangers to these frustrations, and discussions often pop up in which one inspector or another will vent about their experiences, particularly those in which safety wasn’t taken seriously.
Sometimes, however, the discussions serve a deeper purpose, and bring forth some meaningful debate for professionals in the industry. Mark Taylor, a safety director, asked why we tend to neglect “health” in favor of tackling “safety” issues. It’s an odd question on its surface, but only because there’s a lot to disect. “Health and Safety” courses and governing bodies are sort of all rolled into one in most cases, making it so that stopping to separate the two out (if it’s possible) rarely seems necessary.
Taylor argues that issues more closely aligned with health are the cause of more workforce deterioration, employee turnover, and missed work hours than actual safety-related accidents. If this is true, he says, then why aren’t we more focused on health?
First of all, to pick apart this discussion we’ll have to lay down a couple of ground rules and assumptions. Right off the bat, we’re going to have to agree that health and safety are separate entities, or at least purport a definition that sets them apart as such.
Let’s go traditional, and say that things like illness, fitness/lifestyle complications, etc. are “health,” while slips, trips, falls, and any external accidents are “safety”. The most obvious gray area here has to do with chemical and particle exposure on the job, which may lead to health complications in the long term. For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll put these under safety, as they are directly related to preventable workplace exposure.
Possible Reasons for the Status Quo
Currently, the “safety” issues, as outlined by our definition, are huge. They’re explicitly regulated by government agencies like OSHA, and firms face steep penalties if they don’t comply. It would seem that there are two main reasons why the reach of health and safety is primarily concerned with safety: perceived importance and concerns for personal privacy. Let’s take a look at each.
Perceived Importance: The simple fact of the matter is that gruesome work-related incidents are just that: gruesome. That alone means that it can be hard to direct focus to preventing common colds and heart disease, which affect workers quietly and off-site, in the face of the prospect of workers getting crushed by machinery or killed in falls from height.
Also, “safety” is still vitally important, despite how the numbers are argued. If safety professionals weren’t securing workplaces, the results would be catastrophic and the already-sometimes-troubling workplace incident statistics would skyrocket.
Concerns of Personal Safety: The slippery slope of focusing on traditional “health” issues is that many of them have to do with personal choices. Fitness and exercise, or eating habits which may lead to health complications, are almost exclusively a matter of personal circumstances and choices.
While employers are legally able to dictate (to an extent) what goes on at work, they don’t have legal control over what goes on at home. Even if that weren’t the case, workers would probably shy away from companies that wanted to reach further into their personal lives, even if the purpose were to keep them safer.
That doesn’t mean we should just give up ways to improve the health of your workers, let’s take a look at a few things that you could do to improve items within our “health” definition, but without overreaching with your workers. Most of them fall under the realm of simply educating and training.
Education: While you can’t control decisions at home, you can help to suggest healthy habits that will help workers be in better health for their work. Posters that instruct workers to make sure they’re well-rested before coming in to operate machinery, for example. Additionally, you might keep information on healthy eating in your break room or other areas so that workers can peruse it if they choose.
Organized Activities: But there are also things you can do beyond that, and poster Pieter Jan Bots has some great suggestions for how to get things going. He points out that you can make the conscious decision to take some work time out each week to do some of the healthy activities you’d hope your employees might do on their own to keep them in good health.
Organize weekly sports, such as an extended lunch break to go play badminton, basketball, or whatever appeals to your staff’s tastes the most. Bots even points out that businesses can apply to get tax exempt subsidies for renting sports facilities for employee outings, plus you’ll be improving workplace morale while you’re at it!
On-site Lunches: Unless you’re Google, Facebook, or some Madison Avenue agency, you’re probably not going to be able to build a new heathy restaurant on-site for your workers to eat at each day, but that doesn’t mean you’re completely out of luck!
You could, as budget allows, bring in a healthy lunch for employees once or twice per week. This will not only be a health-conscious eating option, but it may expose workers to new types of food that they may end up seeking out later even though they wouldn’t have on their own. As a bonus, you’ll likely garner some goodwill with employees; who doesn’t like to be treated to lunch?!
The Hiring Process: While there are strict laws about what you can and cannot make hiring decisions based off of, there are ways to limit your risk from the beginning. Bots points out, for example, that some employers simply do not hire smokers, as they are more likely to have health complications. Though it is taboo and dubious, the same could apply to not hiring obese people, who are not a protected class (whereas things like gender, sexual orientation – in some states, disability, etc., are).
Of course, just the notion of “don’t hire someone because of their weight” might give you a knot in your stomach, and there’s no telling which way future legislation will take us, so it may be best to not focus on your hiring processes.
In any case, these are a few things you can delve into to help shift from focusing exclusively on “safety” to putting some weight behind “health”. In the end, however, try to be able to recognize the things you can’t change or have no control over and avoid putting too much effort into them. Enjoy the successes as they come, no matter which side of the health/safety coin they fall on.