Workplace health - safety's forgotten friend

 The words ‘Workplace health and safety’ are well used in Australian business and regulatory environments.  Employers increasingly understand that if they identify, assess and control workplace hazards, they will reduce the number of workplace injuries, minimise their exposure to financial and legal risks such as fines, penalties or prosecution, and enhance their businesses success through gains in productivity, efficiency, morale and reputation.  


Workplace health seems to get a raw deal though, with the majority of businesses focusing on workplace safety, not health as their leading priority.  Look closely at the workplace health and safety systems of most businesses and you will find that workplace health barely gets a mention, with the bulk of the emphasis placed on controlling physical hazards.  Where workplace health is included, it is generally in terms of controlling an identifiable workplace hazard such as dust, radiation, noise, thermal stress etc.  Some might argue that this is the extent of an employer’s legal obligations towards workplace health, and strictly speaking, this is true as legislation in Australia does not require employers to take any proactive measures towards improving the overall health of their employees.   To focus on a pure compliance approach, as always can result in short-sighted decision making, mediocre results and missing out on a host of potential benefits to the business.


That time at work forms a significant part of most people’s lives, that this work is increasingly sedentary and/or high pressure and that we have increasing societal problems with obesity and mental ill-health are not simple co-incidences.  According to the World Health Organization, poor health, including chronic and non-communicable diseases such as coronary artery disease, hypertension, diabetes and cancer contributes to increased absenteeism, presenteeism, short and long term disability, increased insurance costs, increased workers compensation claims and turnover rates. This in turn increases costs, reduces productivity, and reduces the quality of goods or services produced.  


Our workplace practices and policies have the potential to exacerbate these problems further, or to take the opportunity to actively assist in changing these worrying trends.  Strong evidence exists to support that the management of workloads, lifestyle friendly rosters, stress management, workplace exercise, nutrition, quit smoking, drug and alcohol programs implemented in a tailored, targeted, integrated manner, can yield very positive results in improving overall worker health, and consequently improved business performance.


Workplace health can be as limited or broad a concept as you choose.  By embracing the broader concept of workplace health and not purely a compliance approach, there is the potential to be involved in exciting, engaging workplace health promotion activities that have the potential to enhance not only your workplace safety program, but business success generally. Maybe someday soon we might also start to see some real traction in tackling these complex health issues on a community/societal scale also.

 Food for thought…


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