At home or work, injuries hurt productivity

Employers shouldn't ignore the bottom-line costs of injuries outside the workplace

It was a warm Saturday afternoon in November. Richard was hanging Christmas lights on his house. A couple of feet to go, and the entire house would be lit for the season.

He was about five feet up on the ladder when he reached too far to the side, lost his balance and came crashing to the ground. The few minutes it would have taken him to move his ladder a foot closer cost him a fractured pelvis, a fractured thighbone and a smashed kneecap. Richard would be off work for four months as a result of this “accident.”

Incidents like this keep thousands of people off work in North America each year. Most organizations are concerned about on-the-job injuries, the resulting cost to productivity and overtime, and the increased employee benefit expense. Yet employers continue to ignore the bottom-line costs of injuries outside the workplace.

Take one engineer who, while horse-playing at home, jumped on his teenager’s skateboard. He fell off and broke his leg in two places, forcing him off work for four and a half months. A replacement worker filled his position at overtime rates — a high price to pay for a few seconds of fun.

Or take one plant that boasts on a sign at the gate: “We have gone 975 days without a lost-time injury.” Obviously, the company’s on-the-job safety is paying off. But then, when plant employees were asked if anyone had missed work because of injuries sustained while off the job, it turns out there were several. Two injuries had kept people away from work for two months. When they returned, they had to be put on restricted duties for another six weeks before they could return to their regular jobs.

Someone who refuses to use an unsafe ladder at work may not give a second thought to going home, drinking a few beers, starting up the chainsaw and standing on a three-legged stool to cut the branches off a tree in his backyard. If the person falls and is injured he will pay with pain and inconvenience to himself and his family. His employer, however, will also pay financially — with worker replacement, increased benefit costs and more.

One company’s efforts

Imperial Oil Resources Ltd., based in Calgary, has set up awareness programs at seven of its operating areas. The focus is on preventing injuries not only at work, but also at home and at play. The company has always taken an aggressive stance on reducing on-the-job injuries, but its off-the-job injuries were 25 times higher, said Ken McGregor, head of safety.

“We believe that someone who checks out his safety awareness on the way out the door can sometimes forget to check it back in when he comes back into work,” said McGregor.

“And there is a ripple effect of an injury. The impact of an injury typically extends far beyond just one individual. Family, friends, co-workers, and neighbours can all have their routines interrupted, often in a profound and lasting way.”

The awareness program provides employees general safety tips and trains them to think about more specific accident risks such as those while driving, while doing housework and while under the influence of alcohol. Employees are also asked to consider who else would be affected if they get hurt. Sometimes spouses and children are brought to safety sessions.

To supplement the awareness sessions, the company also pays half — up to $100 — for safety products and services that employees purchase, which would include anything from smoke detectors through to baby-proofing courses.

It pays off for the company to be concerned about risks to workers during off hours, McGregor added.

For the past three years, Imperial Oil Resources has monitored employees’ off-the-job injuries, albeit only those that keep employees off work for five days or more. In the year before this off-site safety training was introduced, the company logged 200 lost days to off-the-job injuries. The first year after the training program was brought in, that number was down to 37.

Is it worth it for an organization?

Millions of dollars are spent every year on safety training and equipment to prevent injuries at the work site. Virtually nothing is spent to help employees prevent off-the-job injuries.

Millions of dollars are also spent on wellness programs to encourage healthy lifestyles. This is important but the return on investment could be years down the road for these programs. Preventing off-the-job injuries could pay off immediately.

Before an organization decides whether a program would be worth it, it should start a measurement program:

•track how many days are lost due to off-the-job injuries and calculate how much these injuries have cost the company;

•tabulate all hard and soft costs of an off-the-job safety program;

•then total the lost days due to on-the-job injuries and add up all the costs of on-the-job safety training, keeping in mind that there are regulations that make certain on-the-job-safety training essential.

The organization might be surprised at the figures it comes up with. Taking company safety one step further can have a huge financial payoff.

Martin Lesperance is a Calgary-based firefighter/paramedic, author and international speaker on the topic of injury prevention. He can be contacted at 1-888-278-8964 or (403) 225-2011 or [email protected].

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