The estimated total cost of work related injury and illness to employers, workers and the community runs at $60 billion a year, according to Safe Work Australia. “There is strong evidence that businesses who manage their risks well, including their health and safety risks, perform better financially,” says Ann Sherry, the organisation’s chair.
One focus for managing workplace risks effectively involves HR thinking about what could go wrong in the working environment, what the consequences could be and then doing whatever is reasonably practicable to eliminate or minimise the health and safety risks.
But another focus is to look at the employees themselves. At the recent National Workplace Health Conference in Melbourne, a people risk expert said employers should view staff as if they were ‘industrial athletes’ and tailor health and safety strategies accordingly.
“Athletes are rigorously assessed to check for injury and suitability for a position prior to being awarded a contract,” says Scott Coleman, principal of specialised services at Aon Hewitt.
Once employers have documented a worker’s role, they can determine whether an employee will be able to perform and meet the physical demands of the job, he says.
Pre-employment medical assessments alone are not enough. A pre-employment functional assessment should involve vigorously testing high-risk areas of the body in four or five different ways “to create some element of fatigue,” Coleman says.
Coleman believes that employees whose jobs are physically demanding should be in regular training in the same way that athletes undergo regular strength and conditioning to reduce injury and improve performance.
Just having a workplace health and wellbeing program with lunchtime sports might not be enough, he says. “Implementing a ‘job hardening’ program … targeted at the high-risk anatomical areas is critical to improving productivity and reducing injuries,” Coleman says. This can be as simple as requiring workers to use resistance bands on a daily basis. Whatever the exercise, it should target a role’s specific physical demands identified during the biomechanical analysis.
“In organisations with high physical demands, you need to identify when an employee does not meet physical demands [or] has ongoing physical workers’ comp issues and engage them in such a program,” he says. “By having a conditioned workforce, you’ll generally have less severe injuries and employees will recover faster if they do get injured.”