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'Demystify the process'
If occupational health and safety fail to work together as a team, "it is a waste of time and talent," says Jonelle K. Leach, BSN, RN, CRRN, CCM, COHN-S, an occupational health nurse and medical services technician at U. S. Pipe and Foundry's North Birmingham (AL) plant. "The free flow of ideas suffers if you aren't able to easily bounce thoughts off a teammate. That is counterproductive."
Robert Emery, DrPH, vice president of safety, health, environment and risk management at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, recently merged safety and occupational health into a single department. He says that the biggest difference he sees between the two roles is that safety is generally focused on acute issues, whereas occupational health's focus is largely on prevention. "That is where the disconnect can come in," he says. Here are several approaches to improve collaboration:
1. Tell safety what you do.
A safety person may not fully appreciate the value of a tetanus shot. On the other side of the fence, occupational health might not comprehend all the risks associated with working in a confined space.
Emery says that for occupational health, 'on a good day, nothing happens. We have to be really good at explaining to other people that there are a whole lot of things going on behind the scenes to make nothing happen," he says. "So the first step is for both groups to explain what they do."
2. Create a spreadsheet for people to view accomplishments of both areas.
Emery developed a set of performance measures and metrics for both the occupational health and safety programs, and put them in a spreadsheet for everyone to see. He says that this was enlightening not only for higher-ups, but also safety. "If you ask the average safety person, they wouldn't have a clue as to what immunizations or clinical tests are appropriate for individuals in the various work settings," he says.
The spreadsheet clearly outlines this information. It is also used to clear up misconceptions about who does what during emergencies. "For example, who is responsible for distributing and maintaining the hand sanitizers?" asks Emery. "It allows you to see the whole process, from soup to nuts. By improving understanding, we can minimize overlap and eliminate things that fall between the cracks. "
The spreadsheet articulates to a wide variety of audiences that safety and occupational health "play well together," adds Emery. "It serves to demystify the process by categorizing what type of things people in different settings are typically exposed to." For instance, those in clinical settings have biological exposures whereas office workers don't, thus, they have different testing requirements. On the safety front, the number of injuries is listed along with initiatives underway to drive those down. This data overlaps into occupational health programs.
3. Identify areas of overlapping responsibilities.
Emery says a good example is respiratory protection. "Typically, safety is the one doing the fit testing, but occupational health determines whether the employee is physically able to accommodate respiratory protection," he says.
4. Offer "one stop shopping" for employees.
Emery suggests teaming up with safety to hold health fairs. This way, employees can obtain necessary safety training, and also fulfill occupational health requirements such as tetanus shots and TB tests. "This helps to weave the occupational health and safety roles together," he says. "It also increases productivity because the employee is not having to roller skate around to get all of this done."
5. Volunteer to give talks to employees.
Judy A. Garrett, health services manager at Syngenta Crop Protection in Greensboro, NC, noticed that back injuries were more common on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration log and workers' compensation cases than any other injury. She pointed this out to safety, and volunteered to give a presentation at all plant sites.
"Safety loved it because they are always looking for topics and speakers," says Garrett.
As part of the "Oh, my aching back!" event, employees were given "wellness points" which can be traded in for cash, as part of a company-wide program. "That gave safety something special to offer, and it helped us to promote wellness," says Garrett. "
In addition to healthy lifting demonstrations, occupational health covered other causes of back pain, such as carrying a wallet in your back pocket or shoulder bags. "Many times people like to blame all back issues on their jobs, particularly if they do manual labor," says Garrett. "We included factors outside of the actual lifting, such as a person's weight, flexibility, fitness level, and age."
For more information on collaborating with safety, contact:
Robert Emery, DrPH, Vice President, Safety, Health, Environment and Risk Management, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (TX). Phone: (713) 500-8100. E-mail: Robert.J.Emery@uth.tmc.edu
Judy A. Garrett, Health Services Manager, Syngenta Crop Protection, Greensboro, NC. Phone: (336) 632-6499. Fax: (336) 632-7062. E-mail: email@example.com
Jonelle K. Leach, BSN, RN, CRRN, CCM, COHN-S, Occupational Health Nurse/Medical Services Technician, U. S. Pipe and Foundry--North Birmingham Plant, AL. Phone: (205) 254-7536. Fax: (205) 254-7837. E-mail: jleach@USPIPE.com
Lavonda F. Shires, RN, COHN/CM, Occupational Health Nurse/Environmental Health & Safety, Shaw Power Group, Cliffside, NC. Phone: (828) 657-2533. Fax: (828) 657-2441. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.