Injury Prevention Instead of Disability Management

It was a warm November Saturday afternoon. Richard was hanging Christmas lights on his house. A couple of feet to go, and the entire house would be lit for the season. He was up about 5 feet up on the ladder when he leaned too far, lost his balance, and came crashing down to the ground. The few minutes it would have taken to move his ladder a foot closer, cost him a fractured pelvis, femur (thighbone) and a smashed kneecap. Richard would be off work for four months as a result of this “accident”.

Incidents like this keep thousands of people off work in North America each year. Many organizations do not seem concerned about the cost to productivity and the increased employee benefit expense. They are, however, very concerned about the on-the-job injuries and its associated costs. Yet, they continue to ignore the bottom line detriment of off-the-job injuries.

Last week while instructing a safety course at a gas plant, I noted a sign at the gate: “We Have Gone 1,485 Days Without A Lost Time Injury.” Obviously, on-the-job safety is paying off. Then, during my presentation with those employees, I asked if anyone had missed work because of injuries sustained while off the job. In fact, there were several. Two injuries had kept people away from work for two months. When they returned, they had to be put on restricted duties for another six weeks before they could return to their regular jobs.

In the past seventeen years while working as a paramedic/fire fighter, I’ve noticed that the majority of the emergency calls I attended were to homes, or related to outside recreational activities. At work, there are safety rules and regulations, which, for the most part are followed. The money, time and effort spent, usually prevents unnecessary injuries. But once a worker leaves for home, the caution, hard hat and steel toed boots are left in the locker room. I’ve noticed that someone who refuses to use an unsafe ladder at work, may not give a second thought to going home, drinking a few beers, starting up the chainsaw, and standing on a three- legged stool to cut the branches off a tree in his backyard. If the person falls and is injured he will pay with pain and the inconvenience that is to follow. However, his employer will pay financially with worker replacement, increased benefit costs and many more.

How Big of a Problem is This?
I have asked many safety professionals the following question. What is the ratio of off -the-job injuries compared to on-the-job injuries? Most admitted that they didn’t measure the problem and they couldn’t even guess. Some estimated that the ratio would be a low of 5-1 to a high of 17-1. The Petro Chemical System Safety Rating Guidelines tell us that the ratio is 10:1.

One large oil and gas company oil and gas company did track their total lost days for the past three years. They were shocked to find out that 95% of their lost days were attributed to non occupational injuries and illnesses.

Do you know how many lost days are attributed to injuries that happen off-the-job compared to on-the-job in your organization?

In the City of Thunder Bay, Ontario, eleven people came into its emergency departments with serious hand injuries. It was the first heavy snowfall of the year. All the injuries were caused by snowblowers.

There are millions of dollars spent every year on safety training and equipment to prevent injuries at the work site. Virtually nothing is spent to help employees prevent off-the-job injuries. Millions of dollars are spent on wellness programs to encourage healthy lifestyles. This is important but the return on investment could be years down the road for these programs. Preventing off- the- job injuries could pay off immediately. It should be included in all wellness programs or in a separate program. I spoke with a gas plant operator he told me he had jumped on his teenager’s skateboard. He fell off and broke his leg in two places forcing him off work for four and one half months. A replacement worker filled his position at overtime rates. A high price to pay for a few seconds of fun. Coincidentally, my brother-in-law, an engineer broke his leg trying out his son’s skateboard, too. As paramedic, I have attended several adult males with skateboard related injuries. These are not unusual events, Could an awareness program on horseplay or making people aware of the consequences of their actions prevented this? There is a real possibility it could have.

Disability management versus disability prevention A new trend in organizations is the “return to work” program. The longer a person is off work, the more it costs, and the harder it is to get that person back to work. It only makes sense to assist an injured worker with re-entry into the workforce. And, it makes even more sense to help that person prevent those injuries in the first place. This can be achieved without infringing on personal sense of choice by encouraging a unified “buy in” by employees. After all, who wants to see a co-worker and friend injured?

Is it worth it for your organization? Before you decide if a program would be worth it for your organization, start a measurement program. Track how many days are lost due to off-the-job injuries. Calculate how much these injuries have cost your company. Include all hard and soft costs. Then add up the costs you spend to promote off- the- job safety. Now total the lost days due to on-the-job injuries. Add up all the costs of your on-the-job safety training. You might be surprised at the figures you come up with. Taking company safety one step further can have a huge financial payoff for your organization.

If you decide to implement a safety awareness program you will soon note a surprising side effect --- it’s a great moral builder for your employees. So get them involved.

Martin Lesperance is a fire fighter/paramedic, best selling author and international speaker on the topic of injury prevention. Martin uses humour to drive home the point, safety has to be a 24 hour concern in order to pay. Visit his website at for more articles and information.