It's Time to Focus on Wellness, Not Just Safety

A conversation with Teletrac Navman on the importance of construction worker wellness and how to incorporate wellness programs into your company

Wellness aims at preventing illness and injury and prolonging a healthy life as opposed to treating after the fact.
Wellness aims at preventing illness and injury and prolonging a healthy life as opposed to treating after the fact.

A healthy workforce is important. After all, if your workers aren’t healthy then they can’t do their jobs to their full capability. Does your construction company emphasize wellness? It should.

Wellness is defined as the state of being healthy. It is also an approach that emphasizes preventing illness rather than treating after the fact. Focusing on the wellness of your employees can have short- and long-term benefits for both your workers and your company. had a conversation with Chris L’Ecluse, Solutions Specialist with Teletrac Navman, to discuss the important of wellness programs in construction companies. Why are wellness and safety programs essential for construction companies?

Chris L’Ecluse: Construction is one of the nation’s most dangerous industries. In addition to the everyday jobsite injuries and fatalities, construction workers can also fall victim to extreme weather, physical fatigue, thrown out backs and other joint/soft-tissue injuries. But wellness programs offer construction companies the ability to raise awareness and initiate the conversation around worker safety.

Construction firms must take safety and wellness seriously and invest in their workers – implementing safety initiatives arbitrarily is no longer the answer. By developing wellness and safety programs, construction companies can also address the widening talent gap. No one wants to have one of America’s most dangerous jobs, but they will work for a boss that has a vested interest in their safety and wellbeing. What is physiologically-informed safety knowledge, and why is it important to construction workers?

L’Ecluse: People often think, “I know how to walk and how to lift and carry an object.” But they rarely consider if there is a safer way to do it or if they are performing the act correctly. Physiology-informed safety knowledge focuses on the composition of how workers complete a job, not necessarily the job itself. For example, most construction workers have bad backs. By investing in wellness programs that focus on the physiology of the job, employers can train workers on proper lifting and walking techniques to avoid long-term back injury.

Some companies do a poor job of this, and smaller ones seldom invest in physiology. This lack of investment ultimately leads to long-term bodily injury, impacting quality of life and income. What are some tips to defectively design a wellness and safety program for your construction company?

L’Ecluse: First and foremost, construction companies should designate a wellness leader who can incorporate the responsibilities of a wellness program into their day-to-day. Next, poll the employees what are the biggest wellness and safety concerns, and what would they like to see?

Leaders must ensure that they have provided a process to report poor safety conditions or request safety equipment needs, and it should be designed to create a cultural shift to one of ‘speaking up’ and looking out for each other, rather than ‘manning up’ and bottling issues up. Additionally, there should be a focus on adequate and continual education on all new equipment and regular checks on performance protocols.

Once the groundwork is set, companies could begin to add more to cater to their workforce. They should address physical as well as mental conditions and provide support networks to assist with those seeking assistance. Finally, incentive programs can go a long way. Companies can begin to implement rewards for lack of incidents, for completing optional training, for adopting healthier lifestyles or for getting regular health checkups. What key elements must be included in a construction wellness/safety program?

L’Ecluse: To truly ensure you are creating a successful construction wellness/safety program, consider these elements:

  • Mandatory breaks: Operating a big rig may not be as physically demanding as operating an on-site vehicle, but physical and mental fatigue ultimately lead to the same mistakes. Employers must give the workers physical rest where they have a chance to unwind.
  • Training: Injury prevention training focused on physiology of the work should be ingrained in any program. Without it, workers could use their muscles incorrectly and could permanently injure themselves. Workers should be able to learn how to lift with their legs - not their back - and how to properly grasp things. For example, workers should know the difference between precision and power fingers (middle and index are precision, ring and pinky are power).
  • Mandatory safety trainings and health seminars: Weekly safety meetings can be used to discuss timely topics, jobsite hazards, weather conditions and tagged-out machinery. They can also be the place to review safety policies and procedures, including OSHA standards and regulations. Additionally, seminars on health education can further emphasize a healthy lifestyle while at work.
  • Basic first aid: Companies should offer recognized/certified basic first aid courses which aids in immediate first aid response as well as self-management of certain injuries.

Overall, there are many avenues a firm can take when constructing a wellness program. Some offer subsidized gym memberships, incentives to reduce nicotine usage and subsidized healthy lunch delivery. But what is most important is that it is effective in ensuring your workers are healthy and safe. What steps can contractors take to ensure that workers are incorporating these safety and wellness steps on the job? You can teach someone the right way to lift, but what else can you do to make sure they are incorporating these tips instead of ignoring them?

L’Ecluse: Contractors must build a culture of safety there is no way for one person to account for everyone on the jobsite and ensure they are acting in the safest possible way. In doing so, they should promote a focus on education. If workers know why they need to lift a certain way to avoid long-term back injuries and how it could impact their future, they’ll be more inclined to pay attention. Additionally, incentive programs can really resonate with workers. Offering a reward for an annual physical, a healthy lifestyle or for identifying a situation in which a worker is operating in an unsafe way can help ensure workers are integrating wellness and safety into their work. How do wellness programs work hand in hand with the latest safety technologies?

L’Ecluse: Technology cannot exist in a silo. There must be someone on the other side that can take the capabilities of advanced technology and turn them into something actionable.

For over-the-road vehicles, telematics provides insight into speeding, harsh braking, HOS violations and stop sign violations. The data is then gathered, analyzed and turned into actionable intelligence with expertise on remedial action to prevent repeated negative consequences and educational insights for future learning.

On-site, wearable technologies can detect worker falls and alert supervisors of real-time locations. They also can, in certain circumstances, detect health ailments prior to a wearer’s knowledge to seek medical assistance prior to an event.

As the industry continues to move towards technology, we’re beginning to see greater adoption of virtual reality aiding safety initiatives. VR replicates a certain environment, so construction workers can train and interact with the environment before the real thing. However, a proper training program must be in place for this to be effective.

A lead person should be appointed to maintain a database on all safety technologies to ensure they are being used correctly and efficiently. A key factor in integrating safety technology is to be transparent. Transparency of technical data to all personnel should be provided to highlight the desired outcomes and potential issues. The advancement of technology and its benefits to construction safety are becoming quite clear. However, technology alone cannot improve safety. How do you see the increase in vehicle and safety technology impacting construction equipment operators’ safety?

L’Ecluse: Ninety-nine percent of today’s vehicles are automatic. But, as technology progresses so will the degree of automation in vehicles. Lane departure warnings, active cruise control and pedestrian detection were designed to promote safety, in theory, but in reality they reduce engagement of drivers.

People are relying on these technologies to save them and are becoming more distracted behind the wheel as a result. To address the trend of overreliance and ensure workers are actively engaged with vehicles, construction managers must work alongside proper safety technology. How does this play into the safety/wellness program of a company?

L’Ecluse: Managers need to be cognizant of overreliance and teach workers how to work with technology, not let technology work for them. Virtual reality is a good example. Workers can use the technology to experience what it would be like to be on-site, what the proper safety protocols are and obtain sufficient training without putting their own life at risk. Drones can also be leveraged to take footage of dangerous areas/terrain, ultimately protecting your workers by ensuring that they don’t have to encounter the area or by providing insight on which parts to avoid.

Contractors also need to educate all workers, especially new and younger workers, on when tech is an aid, and when tech is an obstruction. Help them recognize that smartphones can be dangerous on a worksite. In a previous conversation you mentioned embedding a wearable into a driver’s wheel on a piece of construction equipment. How would that new approach affect construction worker safety and wellness?

L’Ecluse: Wearables require human contact. Previously, this meant attaching a device to the wearer; be it a hat with tech on the inside of the headband, a wrist worn device or even sunglasses. Rarely were these devices comfortable for all personnel to wear for extended periods with a wide variety of complaints.

Teletrac Navman sponsored a tech competition called a Fatigue Hackathon where various tech-minded groups and companies were invited to submit and present their ideas. One group, comprised of engineers with a medical background, was a standout. They determined that rather than wearing the device with the aforementioned limitations, drivers cannot drive without holding the steering wheel. As the wheel of a vehicle presents a large contact area, more sophisticated technology can be embedded into the wheel to monitor a variety of medical conditions aimed at not only pre-empting known factors such as fatigue, alcohol and drugs but also the unknown such as diabetes, heart conditions, cholesterol etc.

The benefits are that there is no discernible difference to how the end user feels (as opposed to a wearable which is uncomfortable), more technology can be embedded, fewer devices are needed (outfitting all vehicles rather than all personnel) and the tech is less susceptible to damage because it is fixed to the vehicle.

Though a breakthrough, some potential downsides of this solution includes the cost to replace the entire wheel in all vehicles and the potential privacy issues from exposing medical conditions.

Chris L’Ecluse is a Solutions Specialist with Teletrac Navman, where he aims to assist clients better manage their drivers and provide a safer work environment for all personnel. As a qualified Master Driver Trainer, he has extensive experience, knowledge and the background to continue to educate industry on land transport safety issues and future challenges and mitigation protocols. For the last 20 years, Chris has trained Advanced Defensive Driving in many countries throughout the world and consulted on land transport safety issues.