Work safety focus must include risk of disease

It’s 5am and Perth airport is strobing with passengers in high-vis. The check-in is crowded with blokes toting grimy hard hats and protective eyewear. I note the pindan dust encrusted on their steel caps. But despite the impressive display of safety gear, this mostly male workforce is still at risk.

Here’s the conundrum: in 2012-13 an estimated $61.8 billion was spent on work-related injury and illness in Australia. Industries comply with safety rules and regulations at a massive cost, yet the blokes in the airport queue are at increased risk of heart attack, type 2 diabetes, or a stroke at work.

One third of work-related fatalities are disease-related. Two-thirds result from accidents and injury.

Safety in the workplace is essential. However, safety compliance has inadvertently reduced the amount of physical activity at work. This specific decrease, combined with the general curtailment in active lifestyles, has affected the general health, strength and fitness of the worker.

Perhaps safety spending has reached tipping point.

It’s hard to reconcile such a big outlay on safety when Australia’s workforce is getting older, fatter and softer. Ultimately, unfit and unhealthy workers become a cost burden to any business: they take an average of 18 days annual sick leave; those in good nick take an average of two.

A WA resources-related company is a prime example. Although safety is integral to its business and a way of life for this company, management recently benchmarked its predominantly 40-something male workforce for the first time. They found their Aussie males were not in great shape.

To the company’s surprise, 80 per cent of those studied were overweight or obese. Body fat levels were excessively high across the group, 70 per cent had a waist measurement of more than 100cm, and 20 per cent of the group had a neck measurement associated with sleep irregularities and on-the-job fatigue. Work-related performance directly suffers.

The study also found 20 per cent had elevated blood pressure and were at increased risk of type 2 diabetes and nearly 20 per cent of those in the study were referred to their GP. Good managers should be evaluating the health-risk profile of their workforce. Who’s in good shape? Who’s not? The foreman faithfully following all the safety rules remains a significant liability if he’s inactive, 120kg and smokes a pack a day.

The company found 55 per cent of the group needed more regular physical activity, nearly 60 per cent needed to eat more fruit and vegetables, and 45 per cent indicated they often ate processed foods. Lifestyle issues need to be considered when managing risks at work.

The company can now reduce the potential financial burden of an unhealthy workforce through tailored interventions. I am not calling for more wellness programs. It takes more than pilates, meditation classes and a fruit bowl in the office kitchen to undo years of poor health management.

Middle-aged men are in the danger zone here: those with high-blood pressure, anxiety, internal fats, pre-and type 2 diabetes, depression, poor sleep, constant fatigue. These health risks aren’t signalled by flashing orange lights, reflective tape or high-pitched beeping sounds — yet they all have a marked impact on work performance.

There is a positive link between healthy employees and their level of engagement at work. A fit workforce is three times more productive. The more alert you are on the job, the safer you are. You’re also more resilient to illness. An engaged workforce makes your business more sustainable.

Legislating change in this domain is difficult. Chief executives need to think beyond safety rules and regulations to identify and rectify poor health among staff. All chief executives want their workers to return home safely. However, industry leaders need to offer more. They can save lives. Risk profiling is a great start. Embarking on this road less travelled takes strong commitment from the top of any organisation.

If, like me, you were raised to believe that work is the index of your value to society, then maintaining your job fitness is paramount in today’s unstable work environments. Chief executives who choose to invest in their workforce — who want to see their employees finish work in better shape than they started — leave behind a legacy of great leadership.

Originally published in The West Australian – 7th September 2017