Tucked away at the Natcher Center in the sprawling grounds of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), perhaps the heart of scientific research in the US, an eclectic group of individuals gathered at the 3rd International Symposium to Advance Total Worker Health® (TWH). We came from all manner of industry, from academia to medical doctors, nurses, members of governmental agencies, and veterinarians. 

We came together with one common goal, some questions in mind and to share our latest findings. We were joined by distinguished speakers such as Dr. Vivek Murthy (the US Surgeon General), Dr. John Howard (the man who invented the concept of TWH), Douglas Parker (Assistant Labor Secretary of the United States and head of OSHA), Dr. Rochelle Walensky (CDC Director) and many more. 

What was that singular common goal you may ask? How do we continue to promote and perhaps more importantly advance occupational health & safety (OSH) and take it to the next level, eschewing the traditional concept that OSH professionals are not meant to focus on anything other than the physical safety of employees? Do we push past the tried-and-true methods of managing the risks of slips, trips, and falls and preventing musculoskeletal disorders from manual material handling? Is that part of it? Of course, but we need to go so much beyond that. We need to holistically protect the employee’s health, safety, and well-being. An organization that can successfully do this, that can enable an employee to leave the workplace with a greater sense of well-being than when they entered, well that would be a coup for employee satisfaction, retention, productivity, and more. It would be a benefit to both employer and employee. 

An Interview with an Expert

I [Jared Levine, Ergonomics Service Line Lead] had the pleasure of connecting with Dr. L. Casey Chosewood, MD, MPH, Director of the Office for Total Worker Health®, part of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention following the symposium to get his thoughts about the symposium, challenges that we face, and the future. 

What has it been like to see TWH come so far and to have Douglas Parker/OSHA discuss supporting the initiative with guidance in the future?

Dr. Chosewood: “This 3rd International Symposium to Advance Total Worker Health [is] an enormous step forward for workplace well-being.  Hearing well-aligned messages from CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky and the USSG Vivek Murthy on the importance of workplace mental health and well-being interventions nicely framed the beginning and ending of our conference.  And the support shown by DOL’s Asst Secretary for OSHA, Doug Parker, for improving workplace well-being using the Total Worker Health approach, highlighted ongoing partnerships between OSHA and NIOSH, all dedicated to keeping workers safer and healthier.”  

What challenges did the conference address head-on?   

Dr. Chosewood: “Workplace stress and concerns over the mental health of our workers are extremely important issues in almost all workplaces.  These are some of the most common concerns we hear about from employers.  And today, it’s even more critical that we change this misconception that this discussion doesn’t belong in the workplace because mental health challenges and the opioid overdose and suicide epidemics are devastating many in our workforce. Some occupations and industries, like construction, mining, and transportation are especially hard hit.”   

What is one critical takeaway from the symposium? 

Dr. Chosewood: “One critical takeaway was that mental health (MH) conditions are increasingly important; they’re a leading cause of disability and are costly for many employers.  And underlying MH concerns or diagnoses impact productivity day in/out and can often slow the return to work after workers face other injury and illness, whether work-related or not. The quality of the job and the demands of the work are critical to consider here, not just personal risk factors. We know that fast-paced work, high job demands, job insecurity, and low wages in many work settings may increase risks for poor mental health outcomes. Managers, safety pros, and HR teams should increase their comfort around these issues and be ready to help. Many already have the soft skills critical to help mitigate or address the challenges workers face, but all of us can benefit from increasing our comfort and our readiness to act if we see co-workers struggling.”  

What are some other considerations for employers? 

Dr. Chosewood: “Crafting workplaces to be more amenable and accepting to workers as they age may also be an opportunity for some employers to compete in tight labor markets. This is more than just special policies for “old” workers. All workers are aging and all benefit from attention to slip/fall hazards, proper ergonomic design, and noise and lighting optimization. Cross-generational mentoring and coaching (in both directions) is another, often untapped source of creative energy just waiting to emerge.” 

What’s next for TWH? 

Dr. Chosewood: “I really love our Future of Work efforts at NIOSH. This is our effort to be proactive to the needs of workers now and for decades to come, anticipating what work will look like for ourselves and our kids and grandkids. As a grandparent that matters a lot to me.” 

Any concerns about what the future holds? 

Dr. Chosewood: “Work is changing rapidly; employment arrangements are shifting. Uncertainty and insecure employment for many will be a constant headwind. New technologies in the workplace have the capability to help or harm workers. So, it is critical for workers, critical end-users of any new tech, to be at the table when these decisions are made.”   

What is the hope for the future of work? 

Dr. Chosewood: “At NIOSH we believe work can be and should be more than just a paycheck, more than just a job. The right kind of work, designed with health and well-being in mind, offers adequate wages, but it also provides for social connections, for life-long learning, and for meaningful contribution to the company and society. Companies that want a competitive edge should grow their culture, day in and day out focused on improving the health and wellbeing of their workers.” 

Where You Can go From Here 

For organizations looking to improve or up-level our programs, what is next? How do we continue to push the needle and drive excellence in this space? Start by really evaluating your workplace occupational health, safety, and well-being programs. Do they truly meet the needs of your employees, or do they simply check the box on the regulatory minimums imposed on you in the jurisdictions in which you operate? Embarking on TWH is a journey, and it’s not one that can be taken alone or completed overnight. Work with your top management, work with HR, Health & Safety teams, and subject matter experts in the space, and perhaps most importantly, talk to and engage with your employees to see how you can best support them. 

Total Worker Health® is a registered trademark of the US Department of Health and Human Services. 

Want to learn more about Total Worker Health®? Reach out to our Health and Safety practice to learn more and get your questions answered today. 

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