Caring About Health and Safety

A Maclean’s article “Overeaters, smokers, and drinkers, the doctor won’t see you now”, raised eyebrows when it described how some people who drink, smoke or are overweight were being denied healthcare by doctors who see it as the patient’s fault. The article claimed that the burden on the health-care system of people with so-called “vices” was getting very heavy.

Unfortunately, the article’s view misses an important point and lends itself to the kind of finger pointing that seems to occur whenever we face apparently dwindling resources – in this case, health-care dollars.

What happens if we stop blaming people for their problems and try to help them deal with them instead?

Physicians are not always trained, nor do they often have time to deal with many of the problems that wind up in their offices, including chronic alcoholism, depression, stress, insomnia, obesity, chronic pain, smoking, problems with employers, superiors or co-workers and drug addiction. Yet these issues can be linked to heart disease, lung cancer, liver disease, workplace accident and injury, orthopaedic problems, joint pain, hernias and a host of other physical ailments.

So what do we do about drug addicts, workers who die or are injured on the job, or people who smoke, or maintain unhealthy lifestyles? Cut off their medical services? Bring down harsh sanctions at work for unsafe practices? Shame them, discriminate against them?

No. We help them.

Provide psychological services to people who are struggling. Create psychologically healthy workplaces. People can stop smoking and drinking and can change unhealthy habits with psychological intervention. People can stop being depressed and get a good night’s sleep with psychological help. Psychologists are behaviour experts, trained to help people overcome the kinds of issues that can lead to injurious and even fatal outcomes.

And you don’t have to be a psychologist to make a difference. One psychological study found that arthritis sufferers observed their joint pain increased when there was unresolved conflict at work with a superior or co-worker. Another study noted that if a youth’s co-workers tend to take risks they will too, which leads to greater injury potential in young workers.

What happens if we take workplace health, wellness and safety seriously? What happens if we give people the tools to keep themselves and their co-workers safe, the means to quit drinking and smoking, as well as ways to live a healthy lifestyle? What happens if we stop blaming others, our moms, the guy in the next cubicle, or the media?

May be we would start to treat ourselves and each other a lot better.

Petro-Canada Burrard Products Terminal, a Burnaby fuel-processing operation, introduced an informal culture of mutual respect that affected worker safety significantly. By applying the golden rule – “do unto others and you would have done unto you” – and by making safety on the job a moral obligation, the plant enjoyed an almost injury-free worksite for close to a decade.

At the Ainsworth Lumber Company‘s Exeter site, the desire to send workers home safe translated into 10 injuries in 2003, down from 75 in 1992.

At Vancouver City Savings Credit Union, workers are looked after closely following a bank robbery. They obtain instructions on what to do in case of a robbery, plus on-site counseling and debriefing. They get personal services like massage and shiatsu. The company doesn’t want them to end up disabled and traumatized.

Worker-safety programs that highlight respect and care for others, plus the moral obligation to send the workforce home physically and emotionally intact each night, will go a long way. Those that stress moral duty over meeting legal or institutional requirements inevitably go the extra mile for safety and produce good results.

Results come from instituting injury-prevention programs for both management and the general workforce and creating and utilizing joint safety committees, holding regular workplace inspections and implementing their recommendations and promoting employee health and wellness.

The issues that threaten worker safety on a day-to-day basis are psychological in nature and amenable to change. For example, when people are distracted, they are more likely to be injured. What distracts workers? Trouble at home, difficulty with the boss or co-workers or worries about money, the kids or elderly parents.

Sometimes time pressure is cited as the culprit. Once again, it’s not a lack of time, it’s the pressure to rush to finish a job that can lead to tragedy.

Today’s workers are constantly distracted, fatigued, and time-starved. This does not have to lead to injury if the necessary precondition to keeping people safe is met – care. Care about safety—make sure everyone looks out for everyone else, don’t push people beyond their limits, if someone is tired find them a safer job that day, be a good role model to young workers so they don’t take risks, train people well and be on-hand to help, making people struggle alone with something is neglectful and can be dangerous. Catch yourself doing unsafe things and stop, point it out and if there is a company rule against it, call your own penalty. That goes for management and staff alike.

Fix machines, hand people their safety goggles, step in if someone is being bullied, and treat your self well. Exercise, eat right, sleep and take time off. Stop smoking and reduce your alcohol intake. Caring about safety doesn’t have to cost a lot and it costs a lot less than coping with trauma, injury or death. Helping staff battle addiction, cope with loss or illness, identifying risks for diabetes, providing smoking cessation programs, support for healthy eating and exercise and the like can result in better health outcomes. And if that’s easier said than done, consider a psychologist or begin with your Employee Assistance Program through work. Start now. Your future depends on it.

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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