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Health matters: keeping your workplace safe makes a difference in employee morale and the bottom line.

Everyone knows that working on a fishing boat can be dangerous. Standing on slippery decks, lifting and hauling heavy catches, and dealing with dramatically changing weather can lead to debilitating injuries/or those who work unheard. But what about employees who work in offices, or in stores, or at construction sites? Do they need to be worried about workplace safety? And should their employers be concerned about the cost of workers' comp?

The answer is yes. According to a 2003 report on safety in Alaska's workplaces, entitled "Occupational Injury and Illness" by labor economists Kevin Virden and Dean Rasmussen, a total of 15,500 nonfatal injuries and illnesses occurred in Alaska's private-sector workplace in 2001. This equates to an illness and in jury rate of 8.3 cases per 100 full-time workers, compared to a national incident rate of 5.7 cases per 100 workers.

Incidence rates in the manufacturing field, which includes seafood and wood processing, were twice as high as the national rates; the second highest incidence rate was seen in the construction field, with 12.5 cases per 100 workers. Surprisingly, mining showed the lowest injury and illness rate of all major industries in Alaska in 2001, a fact that is credited to stringent safety policies in the state's mining and oil extraction industries.

"The kinds of injuries that doctors see depends on where they work," explained Dr. John Nolte, owner of Hill side Family and Occupational Medicine in Anchorage, which provides a comprehensive array of occupational services. "While most of the occupational injuries that we see are related to the construction field, clinics in Seward and Homer see more commercial fishing injuries. Those tend to lead the pack in terms of occupational injuries."

Those who work in less physical industries are not immune from harm either. According to the "Occupational injury and Illness Report," Alaska's illness and injury incidence rates were higher than national incidence rates in all fields studied, including transportation, communications and utilities; wholesale and retail trade; finance, insurance and real estate; and services.

THE COST TO EMPLOYERS

When businesses look at the cost-effectiveness of creating a safer work place, they often think in terms of what one employee's catastrophic injury or illness could do to their bottom line. According to Sue Johnson, certified occupational health nurse and president of Aurora Environmental & Safety Inc., it is the number of smaller workers' compensation claims that can make or break a business. "Small businesses don't think about workers' comp unless they are hit hard; but what they don't realize is that it is not one incident that drives premiums up," she explained. "It is the frequent small claims, like those for back injuries, that drive costs up exponentially. Back injuries are expensive because they are hard to treat; there is no one fix-all and no one treatment plan."

In 2001, a total of $192.7 million was paid in workers' compensation benefits in Alaska, including medical, disability and rehabilitation costs. Roughly half of the injuries and illnesses reported caused employees to miss work, costing their employers time, money and productivity.

"Employers have a difficult time with injury prevention because they don't feel that they have a right to impose safe work practices on their employees," explained Johnson. "They need to realize that they do have the right. They don't warn to be the bad guy; but if they don't create and enforce safe practices, workers' comp claims can get so high that they won't be able to pay them. They'll go out of business and their employees will be out of jobs."

Holly Hylen, president and CEO of Beacon Occupational Health and Safety Services Inc., believes that having a safe workplace makes good business sense. "It's always difficult to make a soft-dollar sale to management; to convince them that spending the money now will save them money later," she said. "But after being in business for five years, we've established a track record of saving our clients money on workers' comp claims; they've seen a dramatic increase in workers' comp savings as a result of injury prevention."

WHAT EMPLOYERS CAN DO

While a number of larger businesses employ in house safety staff, many smaller businesses can't afford to do the same. For companies who want to develop a safety plan, there are companies like Aurora and Beacon who offer safety consulting services, as well as government agencies like OSHA who offer resources for businesses trying to create a safety plan of their own. "Our certified safety and medical professionals can help businesses identify, develop and implement safety plans, as well as perform the medical component," said Hylen. "We provide medical surveillance services to meet OSHA requirements, as well as perform CDL (commercial drivers license) and pre-hire physicals, and provide case management to employees injured on the job. We work with the employee, the employer and the medical provider to facilitate an early return to work." Included among the list of services that Beacon provides are substance abuse prevention, occupational medicine, remote site clinic services, safety and industrial hygiene services and risk ,and case management.

"Many companies want to do the right thing, but they don't know how," added Johnson. "That's where we come in. We go into a business, identify what they need and make recommendations. We'll even write their safe work policies. Then after the policies are implemented, we'll go back and see if there is anything they can do more cost-effectively."

As a certified occupational health nurse, Johnson also reviews her client's workers' comp claims in order to identify areas of exposure or risk to the company, and works with injured employees to make the process easier. "You rarely hear a story of people who have good experiences with workers' comp," she said. "People feel victimized and start to think of themselves as injured workers instead of healing workers."

While most employers work to establish a safe workplace through the use of the proper equipment, training and support services, some companies go even further in their quest to prevent illness and injury. "We contract with clients to come into their places of business and provide 15-minute chair massages to their employees," explains Anna Remick, public relations and media director of the Oriental Healing Arts Center in Anchorage. "While some companies use our services as a form of employee appreciation, others use it to bring their health care costs down. Studies by the American Massage Therapy Association show that massage can help carpal tunnel, tension, headaches and back pain; and our clients tell us it helps to increase productivity and build positive morale."

HOW EMPLOYEES CAN HELP

Creating a safe workplace is not just the responsibility of the business owner-employees, too, have to take an interest in their own well-being. "A lot of the injuries I see could have been prevented through the use of safety equipment," said Dr. Nolte. "Safety goggles don't do you any good if they're hanging on a wall."

Dr. Nolte counsels his patients on the use of safety glasses and proper lifting techniques, as well as works with businesses to create a safer work place environment. "One of the most important things that businesses can do is to provide the proper safety gear and instruction on how to use it," he said. "They also need to provide some kind of incentive or motivation to get employees to continue using the equipment."

While some companies may choose to offer incentives or bonuses, others might take a sterner tack. "In some of the larger companies, employees understand that there are consequences for not following safety procedures-they can lose their jobs," said Johnson.

In addition to following policy, employees should also take personal responsibility for their own wellness. "If a person has numb wrists and thinks they might be developing carpal tunnel, they should contact their supervisor and request an ergonomic assessment," said Dr. Nolte. "The company might be able to provide them with modified equipment that can help.

"It benefits both the employee and the employer to identify these symptoms before they get worse," he added, "because there is a lot that can be done if the disease is caught early."

According to Johnson, there are a number of companies now making ergonomically correct equipment, including keyboards, chairs and even tools for construction workers. "While these tools might cost a little more, it's better for the employee to use them, so it might benefit the employer to offer to offset that extra cost even if they expect their employees to buy their own tools," she said. "It's the best of all worlds the employee doesn't get hurt, there are no workers' comp claims and less injuries, and the company can probably use it as a write-off. And it shows their employees that they are interested in their safety and health."

While employees may at first be hesitant to accept safety changes, Hylen said that she has found that most quickly adapt, and appreciate, what their company has done. "We get a lot of compliments from employees about our medical surveillance program--they feel that management cares that they are safe," she said. "They like knowing that things are not adversely affecting their health and it endears them to the organization. They see a safe workplace as a benefit."

"Employers who demonstrate an interest in having a safe workplace get better results," agreed Johnson. "When they show that they care about their employees, they get support and cooperation back. And if you keep a person from getting hurt at work today, they come back tomorrow."
COPYRIGHT 2004 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Orr, Vanessa
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Geographic Code:1U9AK
Date:Aug 1, 2004
Words:1591
Previous Article:Alaska Business Monthly's 2004 Oil & Gas Services Directory.
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