Working together against fatigueUnderwriters Laboratories (UL), in collaboration with the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University and the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California, Berkeley, sponsored a two-day Leadership Roundtable on June 20-21, 2014 in Nashville, Tenn.

The meeting, Through the Eyes of the Executive: Creating a Safer and Healthier Workforce, was the first of its kind in a proposed series of periodic thought-leadership summits. The agenda was designed to:

  • expose real and perceived barriers to the successful integration of workplace health and safety interventions and continuous learning;
  • highlight case studies and best practices at companies with proven occupational health and safety delivery models;
  • provide recommendations for employers to embed cultures of health, safety and learning in their organizations;
  • produce meaningful metrics that can be used to measure the impact of coordinated workplace health and safety programs and benchmark performance across multiple locations and/or by industry type.

The participants represented a cross-section of business executives; safety, insurance and risk management professionals; occupational medicine physicians; university faculty members and researchers; and other subject matter experts.

Combining health protection (safety) with health promotion (well-being) in the workplace may appear to be a relatively simple concept, but in practice it’s a complex process.  The following are just some of the challenges:

  • U.S. labor statistics show yearly declines in accident and injury incident rates. However, fewer injuries decrease awareness and diminish the sense of urgency that seems to be required to stimulate workplace health and safety innovation.
  • Many organizations have operational “silos” and budget allocation models that result in competing priorities and lack of collaboration.
  • The population is aging. Older employees know how to work safely but are vulnerable to illness and injury. While younger workers may be healthier and more resilient than their older colleagues, lack of experience can result in serious missteps.
  •  With the looming baby boomer exodus from the U.S. workforce, companies are bracing for “brain drain” and significant loss of institutional knowledge.
  • The U.S. workforce is culturally diverse, requiring adjustments to accommodate various customs and languages. 
  • Overuse of opioid therapy medications to treat pain is a serious issue in the workplace. According to the National Council on Compensation Insurance, narcotics comprise more than a third of all workers’ compensation prescriptions dispensed at a cost of about $1.4 billion a year.
  • Obesity prevalence and the presence of multiple chronic conditions (co-morbidities) such as diabetes, hypertension and depression among a significant percentage of the working population drive up medical care, absence and disability-related costs.
  • Mental health conditions that affect work performance are often undiagnosed or inadequately treated.

These kinds of challenges, along with academic research and evidence-based findings, reinforce the desirability of a preventive approach that incorporates safety learning, wellness (physical fitness, better nutrition, stress reduction) and behavioral health support.


The following five recommendations briefly summarize the consensus reached by the group at the conclusion of the meeting:

Evaluate organizational structure: When looking at the organizational chart, lines of authority and reporting should encourage effective communication and collaboration.

Use a holistic approach: Align safety and health; they are not disparate functions. Design initiatives to incorporate both protection and promotion.

Promote value: Position integrated health and safety activities as key contributors to an organization’s value system and sustainability, not as a cost of doing business.

Make the business case: Senior executives know intuitively that healthy workers are more productive workers, but they need empirical evidence to justify an investment in comprehensive workplace health and safety programs. Reduce ambiguity.

Prepare for a new profession: Redesign undergraduate and graduate school curricula to incorporate health and safety concepts in business courses and business management concepts in environment, health and safety (EH&S) courses. Ultimately, redefine professional roles and responsibilities to better meet.

Source: Todd Hohn, CSP
Global Director - Workplace Health and Safety
Underwriters Laboratories, Inc.

Todd works for UL’s Not for Profit, focused on advancing UL’s mission of promoting safe living and working environments around the world.