Is the Time Right to Invest More in Worker Safety and Health?

safety performance measurement

Overexertion and lifting and handling materials are the two retail workplace hazards most likely to impact safety, as noted in this March 2022 LPM story. These types of injuries underscore the value of machine systems and powered devices to reduce injuries. If apparatus can be deployed that reduces the amount of physical strain that retail workers must exert, then retailers will be helping to prevent their top causes of worker injury and associated workers’ compensation claims.

But what if that argument isn’t always persuasive to management?

Work in retail isn’t especially dangerous but it isn’t without risks, and over the years retailers have managed to reduce their number of recordable injury and illness events, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The injury rate per 100 workers in retail trade was 3.8 in 2012, fell to 3.3 by 2016, and stood at 3.1 in 2020.

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As workers experience fewer injuries on the job, however, the idea of investing in equipment to reduce injuries may hold less sway. If so, loss prevention and safety teams may want to transition management’s attention to the nexus between safety and health and worker productivity.

It is not likely to be a new concept for corporate leadership. It has long been proven that safety and health programs can help drive greater worker productivity and better corporate performance, and there are now additional reasons why this approach may resonate, including the significant growth in investing based on ESG issues (environmental, social, governance), and the fact that companies with strong workplace safety cultures have been shown to have an edge in employee recruitment.

Still, despite annual EHS reports and the growing inclusion of references to safety and health in corporate “core value statements,” these expressions do not always have an impact on the day-to-day safety operations in warehouses and stores. Surveys show that EHS leaders still lament inadequate investment in health and safety programs, and it’s troubling that some companies advancing a commitment to sustainability fail to invest more in worker safety and health programs. A company can’t effectively become a “good corporate citizen” without first becoming a healthy employer.

What’s Your Approach to Worker Safety & Health?

It is a positive sign that companies now feel the need to speak of worker safety as if it is an integral part of the business, but it can be up to safety leaders to push companies beyond lip service. While every retail organization must wage a unique fight to better the partnership between safety, health, and business operations, experts suggest an important foundation for success is to recognize how the company actually does things versus how it wants to do them.

How a retailer truly addresses health, safety, and wellness can be obscured by statements advanced in annual reports and PR, but for a retailer to move toward a more business affirming safety and health strategy, it needs to acknowledge its true current practices. One safety consultant said there is no shame in a company admitting that it handles safety on a problem-by-problem basis, so long as it recognizes that this approach is a starting point and develops a company-wide vision for how it wants to improve. But there is a real danger in allowing a company’s own rhetorical hyperbole to go unchallenged.

To overcome the gap between perception and reality, safety leaders and senior management need to agree on what its current approach to worker safety is, whether it is sufficient, and, if not, in which direction it wants to shift its focus. There are different approaches which characterize most corporate EHS strategies, as identified in a Harvard Business Review study, and companies typically utilize a combination of one dominant strategy plus one or two others.

  • Opportunistic. This is a “do what appears right at the moment” strategy—or, practically speaking, no strategy at all. This is a more common approach than companies are willing to acknowledge.
  • Minimum cost. This is a bare bones safety management approach designed to “keep things running.” Safety activities go through a calculation of risks and benefits; activities that can show immediate financial justification receive implementation.
  • Compliance. This is like the ‘minimum cost’ strategy, except that business management has zero tolerance for regulatory non-compliance, even if the cost to comply outweighs the cost of non-compliance.
  • Risk adverse. This approach combines compliance with a forward-looking examination of risk. Under this approach, companies may take EHS action that goes beyond compliance to reduce exposure to other liabilities, such as higher workers’ compensation costs.
  • Brand protection. This encompasses compliance and risk aversion as a baseline for protecting or enhancing a company’s brand. The goal: Provide the public with an image that the company is socially responsible.
  • Fully integrated. This is the “sustainable development” approach. To be more than just a corporate claim, EHS staff must truly have the ability, resources, and authority to design and implement such a strategy.

Although full integration is usually the goal for safety and health programs, no one strategy is necessarily the best fit for every company. For example, a small retailer may find that a compliance approach is sufficient, while a nationwide retailer trying to protect market share may find that brand protection is the baseline for a safety and health strategy. The more critical point, suggest some experts, is for business and safety leaders to jointly recognize what their strategy is and what they want it to be. In many cases, a “reality check” can cause a dramatic shift in management’s approach to safety and health. A large retailer, for example, now faces new expectations from customers that include environmental and social performance, so an EHS strategy review may find that their current approach to EHS is insufficient in this new business environment.

Expanding the Business Case

Beyond preventing loss and injury, safety and health investments boost productivity, and anything that holds the promise to squeeze more productivity from existing workers is something that should get the willing ear of top executives.

Better safety and health programs reduce absenteeism—that is well known—but studies show that 71 percent of loss productivity time (LPT) is attributable to reduced performance at work, whereas just 23 percent are the result of work absences, and 6 percent is from absences for family health reasons. Thus, nearly three-quarters of LPT is “invisible” to employers because it occurs “on the job,” according to the researchers. Headaches, pain and soreness, and fatigue are three primary hidden causes of hidden loss to employers.

Specifically, research suggests that companies need to answer five questions for themselves about reducing this sizeable cause of lost productivity.

  1. What is our human capital?
  2. What is the value of human capital relative to other company investments and how much of this is dependent upon employee health?
  3. How well do our various occupational health services and programs strengthen workforce health?
  4. What metrics do we need to demonstrate the value of a healthy workforce and
    investments designed to bolster workforce health?

Answering the questions above may help provide retail organizations with the framework for making smart investments to reduce the amount of productivity loss from health and safety conditions.

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