Workplace Health and Safety Doesn’t Necessarily Trip off the Tongue


It seems as if it should be second nature for employers to use health and safety in the same sentence.  But it’s not quite as routine as one might expect.

At a Leadership Roundtable, I found that even professors at major universities and senior executives at large companies can be near-sighted when it comes to the integration of health and safety activities in the workplace. The roundtable was the first of its kind in a proposed series of periodic thought-leadership summits around the concept that healthier workers = safer workers, and vice versa.

A degree of myopia is understandable.

Professionals who have worked hard to develop expertise tend to gravitate toward what they know best, and the organizations they work in often unwittingly erect barriers to collaboration. (I’ll refrain from using the word “silo” to describe business models that thwart inter-disciplinary discussion.) Complementary functions such as risk management, occupational medicine, safety, HR and benefits frequently are not well-aligned on the org chart. Academic research demands rigor and specificity.

However, during a weekend of discussion, Leadership Roundtable participants ultimately acknowledged that all types of employers, and their employees, would benefit from the integration of health and safety programs. They also agreed that incremental movement toward coordinated and synergistic endeavors would serve the best interests of all stakeholders in the nation’s personal health care, benefits and workers’ compensation delivery systems.

Underwriters Laboratories (UL), the global safety science company best known for consumer product testing, sponsored the Leadership Roundtable last year at a Nashville hotel with its co-sponsors, the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University and the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at UC Berkeley. The findings are described in a newly released paper: Through the Eyes of the Executive: Creating a Safer and Healthier Workforce, which may be downloaded for free by visiting UL’s online library.


Attendees represented a cross-section of industries; professionals with job titles in safety, insurance, risk management, human resources and employee health; occupational medicine physicians and nurses; university faculty members and researchers; and other related subject matter experts. The paper summarizes recommendations based on seven conditions these experts believe are required to successfully achieve workplace health and safety integration:

  1. Holistic: Safety and health are not disparate functions; initiatives must be designed to incorporate both health protection (safety) and health promotion (well-being).
  2. Business Case: Integrated activities should be positioned as key contributors to an organization’s value system and sustainability, not as a cost of doing business.
  3. Measurement: Intuition that it “just makes sense” is not sufficient; empirical evidence is needed to justify investments in comprehensive workplace health and safety programs. Common terminology for performance indicators is needed to reduce ambiguity.
  4. Structure: Health and safety integration requires an overarching structure, lines of authority and reporting to support effective communication among all parties and address competing priorities, resource constraints, logistical challenges and cultural barriers.
  5. Preparation: Undergraduate and graduate school curricula should be retooled to incorporate health and safety concepts in business courses and business management concepts in environment, health and safety (EH&S) education.
  6. Learning: Integration demands a shift in focus from past accidents (lagging indicators) to leading indicators such as observed behaviors and conditions that create risk. Deviations help inform meaningful changes in processes and reduce the likelihood of accidents.
  7. Commitment: The impact of top-down and organization-wide involvement and its impact on performance improvement cannot be underestimated.

A follow-up event is planned for this fall. I’m planning to be there.


Karen O’Hara

Posted by, Karen O’Hara

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