The Human Performance Connection: Workplace Health Protection & Promotion

ErgonomicsErgonomics August 12, 2013

Ergonomics is the discipline concerned with the “fit” between the user, equipment and their environments.  Ergonomics as an intervention for health protection has been used on workplaces of every type since ancient Greece in the development of newer and better tools.  As applied to work processes, ergonomics was used to develop better ways to carry out specific tasks.  Ergonomics was further developed to develop the tools of war and space technology from WWI to modern times and gradually these principles made their way into consumer products (Wikipedia, 2013).  Today, Ergonomics principles are common knowledge and are used by many employers throughout the civilized world.

Another emerging field of study is the concept of Wellness.  Wellness is an active process of promoting awareness of and making choices toward a healthy and fulfilling life.  Today, wellness is more than being free from illness. Wellness is a dynamic process of change and growth. There are many interrelated dimensions of wellness: physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, social, environmental, and occupational. Each dimension is equally vital in the pursuit of optimum health (UC Davis, 2013). Wellness as a concept it has some origins that can be traced back to 19th century American intellectual and religious movements.  In the 1950’s the term wellness was tied to ideas about active health promotion through lifestyle change. A wellness movement grew out of this definition of the term, beginning in the 1970’s (Miller, 2005).

In the workplace, health protection (ergonomics & safety) has operated separately from health promotion (wellness).  Emerging evidence recognizes that both work-related factors and health factors beyond the work place jointly contribute to many health and safety problems that confront today’s workers and their families.  So, in 2011 NIOSH launched the Total Worker Health (TWH) Program.  TWH is defined as a strategy integrating occupational safety and health protection with health promotion to prevent worker injury and illness and to advance worker health and well-being (CDC, 2013).

Driving the need to integrate health protection and health promotion  are the enormous challenges to the American healthcare system (Hymel etal, 2011):

  • Chronic health conditions are on the rise across all age groups in the US.  It is expected that in the near future, conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer will add an enormous burden to already high costs of healthcare.  Employers will be particularly impacted as they provide medical benefits for employees and absorb the costs of absenteeism and of long term and short term disability claims.
  • Nearly 50% of Americans have one chronic health condition and of this group, nearly half have multiple chronic conditions.  80% of medical spending goes toward care from chronic conditions.
  • Health risks leading to chronic conditions are also on the rise.  According to the CDC, in 2007, only one state (Colorado) had a prevalence of obesity less than 20%.  Thirty states had a prevalence equal to or greater than 25%.
  • A 2001 study found that annual medical claims’ costs for people with five or more health risks were double the costs of individuals who were healthier, that is, had two or fewer health risks.
  • The US workforce is aging and it is projected that between 2006 and 2016, the number of workers 55 to 64 years of age will increase by 36.5%, while workers between 65 and 74 years of age and older than 75 years will increase by 80%.  By 2015, one in every five workers will be 55 years of age or older.
  • Older workers typically suffer from chronic health conditions and have multiple health risks.  The chronic conditions most common among older age groups often require more care, are more disabling, and are more difficult and costly to treat than the chronic conditions that are more common to younger age groups.
  • A University of Michigan study showed that 86% of worker’ compensation costs were attributed to worker health status tied to risk assessment.  Another study in 2009 involving health risk assessments showed that those with high risk were nearly 3 times more likely to file a workers’ compensation claim.

Interventions consistent with TWH include but are not limited to:

  • Respiratory protection programs that support tobacco cessation.
  • Ergonomic consultations and fully integrated traditional safety programs.
  • Regularly scheduled joint meetings of safety, occupational health, and health promotion leadership and staff.
  • Implementation of training and prevention programs that counter hazards and risks faced by workers both on and off the job.
  • Onsite comprehensive workplace health screening.

There is plenty of research on dollar savings from ergonomics programs and there is some research on success from implementing wellness programs.  Integration of health protection and health promotion is a new concept.  What is lacking is research on Return on Investment to employers for investing the time and capital associated with implementation of these more comprehensive programs.  We would like to hear from you.  Please share any research you may have regarding Return on Investment from Workplace Health Protection & Promotions programs.


Wikipedia:  Human Factors & Ergonomics (2013) available at

University of California – Davis Wellness Portal (2013) available at

Miller JW (2005) Wellness:  The History and Development of a Concept.  Spektrum Freizeit (1) available at

US Centers for Disease Control (2013):  Total Worker Health Program available at

Hymel, PA etal (2011):  Workplace Health Protection and Promotion:  A new pathway for a  healthier and safer workforce.  JOEM 53 (6).  Available at

– Vic Zuccarello, OTR/L, C.E.A.S. II, ABDA

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