Improving health and safety on the job

nurses in hospital

November 7, 2016—The Center for Work, Health and Wellbeing at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public aims to find new approaches to address the many ways that jobs can affect health and safety, from potential exposures to physical hazards, to work-related stress. Established in 2007, it is one of six Centers of Excellence funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) as part of the Total Worker Health® (TWH) initiative. In September, NIOSH renewed the Center’s funding with a five-year grant totaling $6.5 million.

“We believe that focusing on improving workplace physical and organizational environments can lessen risks and help both employees and companies thrive,” said the Center’s director and principal investigator Glorian Sorensen, professor of social and behavioral sciences at Harvard Chan School.

Researchers and staff at the Center for Work, Health and Wellbeing. Jack Dennerlein and Glorian Sorensen are pictured front row, second and third from left.

TWH represents a relatively new approach for NIOSH, which had traditionally focused on occupational injuries and illnesses, Sorensen said. The initiative aims to identify policies and programs that integrate protection from work-related safety and health hazards with promotion of injury and illness prevention efforts to advance worker well-being.

The shift is in response to a growing body of research evidence linking the work environment and health outcomes. For example, stressful conditions at work such as long hours and little supervisor support have been associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease and depression, and shift work with increased risk of sleep disorders, obesity, and injury. These factors in turn contribute to increased absences and turnover—and increased costs for employers.

Reducing injuries in hospital staff

In addition to its research, the Center at Harvard Chan School works closely with companies and organizations to help them improve policies, programs, and practices related to worker safety, health, and wellbeing.

For example, researchers worked with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston on an initiative to improve utilization of mobilization devices in patient handling. The hospital wanted to get patients up and moving from their beds early and frequently during their care—research has shown that it aids recovery—but the physical demands can be tough on staff.

The Brigham’s program included a coordinated, hospital-wide effort from upper management to laundry services. The administrators made using mechanical lifts and slings a formal part of patients’ care plans and supported staff across the hospital to make using the devices routine. Leadership provided staff with time for training during working hours, and mentors to go to for help. New processes were developed to ensure that slings were consistently available when needed, and that equipment was kept in good working order.

After a year in practice, the program was been linked to a drop in injuries among hospital staff, according to an evaluation led by Jack Dennerlein, the Center’s associate director and co-principal investigator and adjunct professor of ergonomics and safety at Harvard Chan School. It appeared online October 25, 2016 in Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

The Center’s work with the Brigham, and other hospitals in the Partners HealthCare system, is part of ongoing research into the effects that job demands have on the health of nurses and other patient care workers. Center researchers also work closely with the construction industry, including developing and implementing a comprehensive health and safety program to prevent injuries that also integrated opportunities to quit smoking and improve physical activity.

Training efforts by the Center include a popular Executive and Continuing Education course Work, Health, and Wellbeing.

Amy Roeder

Photos: iStock; by Sarah Sholes