When it comes to promoting worker safety, employers have a vested interest. U.S. employers spend more than $1 billion a week on workers’ compensation costs for non-fatal injuries. In an effort to reduce these numbers, employers also spend another $1,111 on safety training for each employee on the job site. Despite these high costs, these efforts are still not enough to decrease worker injuries.
Keeping workers safe requires a proactive approach, not only to prevent injuries but also to retrain employees in proper ergonomics. Additionally, reducing the high cost of workplace safety incidents requires an immediate response to injury care that avoids costly ER visits whenever possible.
As you seek to develop workflows and processes that improve employee safety at your organization, you may be asking what safety initiatives you can implement now that will provide enough ROI to justify the cost of the program going forward.
Fortunately, there are several proactive approaches to keeping employees safe that literally pay for themselves. Some initiatives are about maintaining the rigors of a safety culture in new ways, while others use modern technology to provide immediate triage should a workplace safety incident occur. Here are seven effective safety initiatives to implement at your workplace.
1. Normalize Risk Assessments
Risk management is the foundation for any successful workplace injury prevention program. Human risk in the workplace is a variable that changes every day. Because risks vary, these programs require an ongoing level of maintenance to ensure their effectiveness.
It’s a compelling argument for why risk assessments should happen more frequently. The difficulty with more regular safety assessments is time. Often, they are limited to an annual or perhaps quarterly basis. Going beyond the annual risk assessment, which is a bare minimum standard, is critical not only because human safety variables change but also because the regulatory environment fluctuates.
We recommend monthly risk assessments to help your organization make on-the-job changes to improve worker safety. This can include everything from a blocked fire door to regular observation of how employees lift heavy items to what protective gear they wear to what kinds of repetitive tasks they undertake.
2. Put Safety in the Job Description
Every position should have a safety standard baked right into the job description. Doing so helps to build a safety culture that talks openly about risk—and how to mitigate it. Creating these recommendations requires a thorough job safety analysis that integrates better occupational health and safety principles into every position in your company.
In a sense, you are creating a set of specific rules for every role in your company to keep your workers safer. This process pays for itself in three ways:
- You reduce overall company risk of serious injury by making safety a job requirement.
- You proactively retrain employees to avoid repetitious tasks that cause harm to their bodies.
- You attract candidates by illustrating that your company works hard to protect its employees.
Observe employees across roles and departments to determine potential injury risk, then work with managers, operations and engineering as needed to develop solutions to reduce those risks. Ultimately, the objective is prevention of workplace safety incidents.
3. Build a Culture of Safety
Safety culture should be more than just a buzzword in risk management circles. The belief is that better safety practices can—and should—permeate every corner of your business. This requires:
- A shared mission that goes beyond profit. Company goals should be focused on achieving the mission while also keeping employees safe.
- Buy-in from organizational stakeholders at every level. When was the last time your CEO visited the work floor to observe worker safety practices?
- Continuously reinforced learning at every stage of the employee lifecycle, from discussing safety with job candidates to enforcement by senior management.
- Accountability for workplace safety at all levels. This must also be coupled with a strong and immediate response to incidents if they occur, which show employees that you truly have their backs
A safety culture is a marathon toward a new way of thinking that realigns your company’s values. It requires constant advocacy from leadership. For companies with a strong safety culture, it’s the drumbeat behind everything they do.
4. Provide PPE and Enforce Its Usage
Personal protective equipment (PPE) is more than an OSHA requirement. PPE and employee education are two of the powerful tools you have to help workers stay safe on the job. For example, many on-the-job head injuries can be prevented by wearing head gear. Likewise, wearing ear protection can help your employees retain their hearing even as they get older.
Of course, ensuring workers comply with PPE rules can be challenging. The next time you see workers not using their PPE, ask them why this is the case. Too often, employees have outdated and uncomfortable safety gear.
Consider seeking feedback from your workers as you research new PPE. Allow your employees to trial specific upgraded gear you’re considering. This will engage your workers in regular discussion of workplace safety concerns, such as PPE compliance, but also give them a chance to be a little more comfortable with the gear they’re required to wear. If you can offer two or three models of the gear to allow for personal preferences, even better. By allowing employees to express themselves, you’re saying you value their personality and interests as well as their safety.
5. Accommodate Remote Work (When Applicable)
Most industrial settings do not allow for remote work. However, rules adopted at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic can still apply when employees become ill.
Allowing employees to work remotely whenever possible–particularly when they aren’t feeling well–protects employees should the flu, COVID-19 or other infectious diseases appear at the workplace. You can also continue to:
- Encourage your employees to stay up-to-date on immunizations, including getting the latest COVID boosters;
- Require employees to self-quarantine when exposed to the virus;
- Emphasize on-the-job hygiene; and
- Encourage mask wearing and social distancing when risk factors or high local case numbers are present.
6. Train Employees in Ergonomics
Ergonomic injuries, or those affecting the body’s musculoskeletal system, are the most common types of on-the-job injuries that occur today. Repetitive motion injuries as well as strains of the ligaments, muscles, and tendons are preventable—but only if you develop an ergonomics work plan for your business.
Ergonomics programs seek to lessen the strain on the body by identifying behaviors and processes that can be changed to protect your workforce from these all-too-common workplace injuries. Engineering ergonomics for your workplace requires three major considerations to help prevent MSK injuries:
- Workstation evaluations to change layouts to improve the comfort and safety of your teams.
- Administrative policies that reduce strain, such as limiting the amount of overtime or increasing the duration of breaks.
- Opportunities to promote the use of PPE that ensures safer movement, such as grip-enhancing gloves and anti-slip footwear.
Awkward postures, improper lifting, whole body vibration and repetitive tasks are risks that can only be mitigated by retraining your workforce in proper bodily postures as well as other ergonomic workplace controls.
MSK injuries are not only preventable with a certain level of attention to how we lift or perform repetitive tasks, they also do not require a visit to the ER when they occur. Yet that is often what happens when workers experience back strain, overexertion, muscle pulls or repetitive motion injuries that result from the workplace.
7. Develop an On-Site Injury Assessment Workflow
Thanks to improvements in video conferencing and telemedicine, employers can now offer immediate clinical triage in the event of a workforce injury instead of sending an injured employee to an urgent care center or ER. That saves valuable time and dollars for employers and delivers the care employees need in minutes instead of hours.
Telemedicine brings a doctor to the patient on any digital device. Using the device’s built-in camera, a clinician can quickly evaluate an injury to determine if an in-person medical appointment is necessary. Beyond injuries, telemedicine can be used by orthopedically trained clinical teams to provide virtual ergonomics assessments to view and make recommendations of employee workstations.
Your employees can also get back to work faster after an injury by working with a physical therapist via a telemedicine application. These physical therapy sessions can even occur in an appropriate setting on the job site, thereby eliminating the need to travel to and from a doctor’s office for a simple orthopedic recheck and a return-to-work ruling.
The Ultimate Goal of Keeping Workers Safe
The ultimate goal of employer-led health and safety initiatives is to incorporate safety into every aspect of the business.
Reducing the occurrence of injury will inevitably reduce the cost of injuries and workers’ compensation claims that companies must pay, money that can be invested elsewhere into creating a productive and safe environment for workers. The pivotal charge, then, is for decision makers to change their mindset and implement these seven low-cost but high-impact steps. The sooner they can, the better the outcomes for both employee health and employer ROI.
R. Michael Greiwe, MD, is a practicing orthopaedic surgeon and the founder of OrthoLivethe world’s only nationwide digital, virtual, and in-person musculoskeletal clinic providing 24/7/365 access to orthopaedic experts. OrthoLive covers more than 1,000,000 lives across 2,300+ locations and 3 continents to improve outcomes for patients and savings for organizations.
He attended the University of Notre Dame, where he won the prestigious Knute Rockne Award for excellence in academics and athletics. He completed his orthopaedic surgery training at the University of Cincinnati Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and Sports Medicine. In 2010, Greiwe completed his fellowship in shoulder, elbow and sports medicine at Columbia University.