How Businesses Can Help Address Workplace Health and Safety Issues

Target 3 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.” One hurdle to achieving this target is workplace health and safety. The 2017 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index claimed that US businesses lose at least USD1 billion per week to “serious but non-fatal [workplace] injuries.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2015, absenteeism cost US businesses USD225.8 billion in lost productivity each year. Statistics from the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reveal that more than 4,500 workers are killed while at work annually.

It is vital that businesses address workplace health and safety issues. Doing so translates to fewer injuries, illnesses and deaths among workers. This outcome will lead to healthier and more productive workers. And when workers are healthy and productive, businesses’ profits rise.

Workplace Falls

Given today’s modern work facilities, workplace falls should be considered a thing of the past. Falls remain a prevalent workplace health and safety issue, however. According to 2014 figures from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), fall-related injuries resulted in 261,930 workers missing at least one day of work. This data also states that workplace falls killed 798 workers.

In April 2017, more than 100 companies in Singapore participated in a Senior Management Workplace Safety and Health Walkabout. This activity is a part of “Target Zero Falls,” the fall prevention campaign of the country’s Workplace Safety and Health (WSH) Council. The senior management teams of the participating companies are “expected to observe work activities, check for fall hazards and inculcate a mindset that accidents, especially falls, can be avoided.” The WSH Council identified falls as one of the leading causes of workplace deaths. It also said that slips, trips and falls constituted many of the 39 major injuries and 1,072 minor injuries in Singapore’s hospitality industry in 2016.

Park Hotel Alexandra, one of the businesses that participated in the walkabout, staged a demonstration of its fall prevention efforts. Its kitchen personnel, for instance, all have tissues so they can immediately wipe floor spills to avoid slips. The hotel is a recipient of the bizSAFE STAR and OHSAS 18001, the WSH Council’s highest certification for workplace safety and health.

Chemical Hazards

Some people work in jobs that involve handling chemicals, rendering them vulnerable to chemical hazards. OSHA divides chemical hazards into two categories: physical and health hazards. OSHA describes a physical hazard as “a chemical for which there is scientifically valid evidence that it is a combustible liquid, a compressed gas, explosive, flammable, an organic peroxide, an oxidizer, pyrophoric, unstable (reactive) or water-reactive.” It defines a health hazard as “a chemical for which there is statistically significant evidence based on at least one study conducted in accordance with established scientific principles that acute or chronic health effects may occur in exposed employees.”

According to OSHA, an estimated 32 million workers are exposed to at least one chemical hazard because of their jobs. 2015 data from the BLS included 3,230 non-fatal injuries and illnesses as a result of exposure to chemicals and chemical products. Many industrial chemicals may cause health problems, including permanent disability and even death. Mercury, a metal used for manufacturing electronics, paper, paint and medical equipment, can lead to kidney damage, lung ailments, mental impairments, birth defects and death. Asbestos, a mineral used in construction and shipbuilding, causes mesothelioma, a rare, aggressive and fatal type of cancer.

In June 2017, the ZDHC Foundation soft launched the ZDHC Gateway-Chemical Module, an online search tool that leads consumers to safer chemicals currently being sold in the market. Chemical suppliers can register their companies in the ZDHC Gateway-Chemical Module, as well as display their products’ levels of compliance (from levels 0 to 3) with the ZDHC Manufacturing Restricted Substances List (MRSL). As a result, manufacturers and brands that are using the ZDHC Gateway-Chemical Module can find out which chemicals are safe to use. Through the ZDHC Gateway-Chemical Module, the ZDHC Foundation is able to ensure that its member companies avert chemical hazards, and produce products that do not harm the environment and are truly safe for consumers to use.

Vehicular Accidents

Vehicular accidents are a common workplace health and safety issue in jobs that involve driving. According to the BLS, there were 1,264 fatal “[roadway incidents] involving motorized land [vehicles]” in 2015. The World Health Organization (WHO) claimed that countries can lose up to 3 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) to road traffic crashes. Such a loss, the WHO added, includes productivity losses as a result of the victims’ disabilities or deaths, as well as those sustained by family members who have to work shorter hours or completely stop working to tend to the injured.

OSHA identified several reasons for work-related vehicular accidents, including unfastened loads, distracted driving, drowsy driving and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. When cargoes are not securely loaded in a vehicle, they can move around inside the vehicle. When the vehicle makes a sudden maneuver, the unsecured cargoes can fall from the vehicle and crash into other vehicles or pedestrians.

Some drivers drive despite being too tired and sleepy to do so. In some cases, the driver is well-rested, but is using his mobile phone while driving. There are also instances where the driver’s ability to drive safely is impaired due to the consumption of alcohol or drugs (whether over-the-counter, prescription or illegal). These scenarios reduce alertness and concentration while driving, resulting in potentially fatal vehicular accidents.

In 2014 and 2015, Coca-Cola conducted Route-to-Market (RTM) workshops in order to improve the road safety of its workers. Since one of Coca-Cola’s key operations is delivering its merchandise from its bottling plants to stores, it is a good business practice that the company considers road safety a priority. The workshops were held in countries with high rates of vehicular accidents, including Ghana, South Africa, Azerbaijan, Turkey, the Philippines and Costa Rica. They focused on sharing best practices and developing solutions on road safety-related issues such as route risk management, driver training and vehicle inspection and maintenance. When its employees are safe from vehicular accidents, Coca-Cola can more effectively sell and profit from each bottle of beverage it is producing.

Workplace Violence

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) defined workplace violence as “the act or threat of violence, ranging from verbal abuse to physical assaults directed toward persons at work or on duty.” Examples of workplace violence include bullying, threats, harassment, intimidation, sabotage and homicide. According to OSHA, every year almost 2 million Americans fall victim to workplace violence. Workplace violence costs businesses billions of dollars in lost productivity, high employee turnover and legal expenses each year.

Sexual harassment is one of the most common forms of workplace health and safety issues that women face. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defined sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.” Sexual harassment is largely a result of sexism, or discrimination based on sex or gender.

Examples of sexual harassment include inappropriate remarks about a person’s appearance or behavior, unwanted physical contact (e.g. hugging, kissing or touching), telling sexually explicit jokes at work and sexual assault. Sexual harassment is detrimental for both businesses and employees. For businesses, sexual harassment can lead to a hostile working environment, billions of dollars lost to lawsuits and low employee morale. For employees, sexual harassment can mean reduced productivity, physical and mental health problems, and strained work and personal relationships.

In December 2016, Unilever announced its partnership with UN Women for the project Intervention Programme to Inform the Development of a Global Framework on Women’s Safety. This project, which will be implemented from 2017 to 2019, aims to ensure the safety of women working in Unilever’s tea supply chain. It is a combination of best practices from the aforementioned institutions, including Unilever’s “Women’s Safety Programme” in Kenya and UN Women’s programs “Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces” and “Prevention and Access to Essential Services to End Violence against Women.” Both Unilever and UN Women intend to apply Intervention Programme to Inform the Development of a Global Framework on Women’s Safety to the wider tea industry and other industries in the future. When we ensure women’s safety at work, sexual harassment and workplace violence are prevented and minimized.

A “Culture of Safety” for Profitable Businesses

Addressing workplace health and safety issues is one of the most effective ways for businesses to ensure their continuity and improve their bottom line. After all, when a workplace is safe, employees are healthier and more productive. Further, businesses save money that could have been spent on worker’s compensation or employee lawsuits, which can then be used to improve the quality of the products and services that they are selling.

But addressing workplace health and safety issues goes beyond posting safety reminders in work areas or holding town hall meetings where management urges employees to “be safe at work.” It requires creating a “culture of safety”—an organizational approach where everyone, from the CEO to the cleaner, is involved in building a safe workplace.

When more people in a business are involved in promoting workplace health and safety, the greater the chance of success. Everyone in that business knows how to effectively prevent diseases, accidents and injuries, be it wiping spills immediately, using safe substances or treating all employees with fairness and respect. As a result, that business will achieve higher profits and an untarnished reputation that earns the trust and respect of consumers and other stakeholders.

ADEC Innovations provides industry expertise in social sustainability that helps organizations improve their existing systems and programs, and helps them promote and reward compliance and improvement.