Connecting safety and wellness programs for a better workplace

Jun 26, 2017 · 6 min read

Safety and wellness … it’s easy to see the connection. However, in many workplaces, human resources departments approach them as two separate efforts. Safety is all about compliance to OSHA regulations and the implementation of various procedures inside the company. Wellness may be viewed slightly less seriously. It’s typically voluntary and extends beyond work into an employee’s personal lifestyle.

The truth is, these initiatives are more connected than most of us realize. Both workplace safety and employee wellness will have a direct impact on productivity, health insurance claims, reputation and the overall profitability of all types of Wisconsin businesses.

The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM), refers to safety as “health protection” and wellness as “health promotion.” In a paper on this subject from the ACOEM, the authors propose and encourage the elimination of such “workplace silos.”

“By placing boundaries around these activities, their overall effectiveness has been limited. Today’s best evidence indicates that the aims of both health protection and health promotion interventions are best achieved when they are working in concert.”

The paper goes on to explain that, while more employers are embracing strong safety and wellness programs, the combination of these concepts isn’t happening as often as it should.

“Few employers have created truly integrated programs, which comprehensively address both health promotion and health protection in a systematic fashion. In the majority of workplaces, the ‘wellness community’ and the ‘safety community’ are simply not connecting; they operate far too independently.”

As a human resources professional, the responsibility of creating a company culture that’s safe and healthy will likely fall on your shoulders. Here are some things to consider when implementing programs involving safety and wellness and how one will directly affect the other.

Good sleeping and eating habits improve safety

Accidents can happen when workers experience tiredness or lack of focus. Proper rest and nutrition are common components of wellness and good health, and studies show they can also impact workplace safety.

Among the most recent studies is one that took place in 2015 examining the impact of fatigue as a workplace hazard. The Fatigue Management Study identified “lack of restorative sleep” as the most common cause, meaning fatigue on the job is most often the result of poor sleep at home. Researchers also point to the following workplace problems associated with fatigue.

· Longer reaction time

· Reduction of alertness

· Poor psychometric coordination

· Information processing difficulty

· Decreased task motivation

· Memory problems

· Impaired concentration

It’s quite apparent how those issues could directly impact safety and productivity. The ACOEM cites another study, which found the risk of workplace injury doubles in employees with sleep disorders.

Poor diet and mismanaged body weight can also impact safety. The Cost of Obesity in the Workplace, a study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work Environment & Health, indicated that not only do overweight and obese workers add more to an employer’s healthcare costs, they are also more likely to suffer a workplace injury.

Encouraging employees to adopt healthy eating habits can help them manage their weight and improve aspects of productivity, such as memory, focus and sustained energy levels. Read our article on nutrition in the workplace for tips on encouraging better food choices.

Staying fit to stay safe

Whether it’s strenuous physical work or a desk job, physical fitness will help employees avoid many common workplace injuries. The National Safety Council (NSC) says workplace injuries cost U.S. companies well over $100 billion every year.

Overexertion was the most common type of workplace injury in 2016, with 35 percent of incidents involving people getting hurt from lifting, lowering and repetitive motions. Learn more in an infographic from the NSC.

Short breaks can help, but so can stretching. Some companies require employees to stop and stretch for a few minutes during the workday. While this may feel imposing, specific stretches that relate to certain types of repetitive work can contribute to injury prevention, and it can even become a social activity that employees look forward to.

However, going beyond stretching may do even more to promote safety. A University of Wisconsin — Whitewater study examining whether stretching programs can prevent work-related injuries concludes …

“While research does support that stretching improves flexibility/ROM [range of motion] and self-worth, stretching alone might not prevent work-related musculoskeletal disorders and injuries. Some studies also suggest that strength training, conditioning and warm-up could play an important role …”

This is why a wellness program encouraging comprehensive physical fitness may be beneficial to workplace safety. It’s also a good reason to offer gym membership discounts as a company perk.

Not all work is physically demanding, but employees who spend most of their day at a computer will also benefit from stretching and exercise. According to some health experts, sitting is the new smoking, as research indicates inactivity can lead to serious health issues such as obesity and cardiovascular disease as well as problems like back and shoulder pain.

Giving employees the option of standing desks is a step in the right direction, but simply remembering to change positions now and then will help people, too. You could also start a lunchtime walking group as part of your company’s wellness program.

Workplace stress and safety

Safety and wellness include mental aspects as well as a focus on the physical. Workplace stress has become a major concern in the U.S., costing employers $30 billion a year in lost workdays according to an article from the Harvard Gazette. Improving safety is one way to reduce stress.

Consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Near the bottom of that pyramid, just above food, water and rest, you’ll find safety. Those basic needs must be met before an employee can truly function at their best.

Whether a worker feels in danger due to the nature of the job or because of less apparent threats to security, improving safety in your workplace has the potential to reduce stress and boost productivity.

The NSC’s Safety and Health magazine interviewed an expert on this issue by the name of Michael Topf, who consults businesses on workplace health and safety. Topf said his experience has helped him realize that “stress has an impact on safety,” and it affects practically every industry.

“When you’re under stress, one of the things that is on your mind is the source of the stress. It creates a distraction. Let’s say you’ve got a sick parent in the hospital, and you get to work and you’re climbing a ladder or you’re on scaffolding. While you’re walking along on the scaffolding, part of your attention is on where you’re walking and what you’re doing, but also part of your attention is on your sick mother in the hospital. Loss of focus or inattention is a major cause of injury.”

This suggests the idea of taking a mental health day shouldn’t be frowned upon. It could help prevent a worksite accident due to the distraction of mental or emotional stress.

There are many obvious things you can do to make sure workers are staying safe. You can easily check to see if they’re wearing the right protective gear and following procedures. However, stress is harder to gauge. To help you identify signs of workplace stress, HR-Playbook has created an infographic highlighting common characteristics of employee burnout.

Safety and wellness make perfect partners

Not only do safety initiatives and wellness programs go hand-in-hand, participation in activities that make employees healthier may be more likely when you start with safety. The ACOEM paper mentions studies indicating that involvement in a wellness program is less likely when a company has unaddressed safety issues.

“The research suggests that a firm foundation of solid safety efforts is necessary before an organizational wellness effort can yield optimal results … A combination of safety and wellness appears to be necessary to move an organization forward in adopting a true culture of health.

For important information on OSHA compliance and more, check out our article featuring resources to keep Wisconsin workers safe.

HR-Playbook’s sponsor, Security Health Plan of Wisconsin, can be a valuable partner when it comes to the wellness portion of your company’s culture of health. From the implementation of health risk assessments (HRAs) to helpful and motivational health coaches, Security Health Plan has the in-house experts and resources to assist your company in finding ways to integrate worksite wellness with safety efforts.

Contact Security Health Plan today or call 800–622–7790 to find out more about employer health coverage plans and options.


HR-Playbook provides insights and advice to make life easier for human resources professionals in Wisconsin managing group benefits for their employers. Visit our sponsor: to find out about health insurance options.


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HR-Playbook provides insights and advice to make life easier for human resources professionals in Wisconsin managing group benefits for their employers. Visit our sponsor: to find out about health insurance options.

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