Laura Rourke sees unsafe workplaces every day. As the manager of the Excellence in Manufacturing Consortium’s Safety Group in Cambridge, Ont., it’s her job to help firms conduct safety audits and work towards accident-free workplaces.

“I’ve seen it all,” she says. “Unguarded equipment, employees not wearing safety gear, poor lifting techniques” – and lots of safety rules put in place by managers, but with little or no enforcement. The end result: workplaces where accidents could be on the verge of happening – or have already happened.

But while your employer bears much of the responsibility for keeping your workplace safe and healthy, you can take significant action yourself. Rourke feels that employees who are closest to their jobs by virtue of doing them daily can make a big difference in creating workplaces where they are healthy and safe. She says employees need to keep asking themselves: “Is there a better way this can be done?”

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” she says.

Healthy workplaces start with healthy workers

Many workplaces are fast-paced and stressful. Deadlines have to be met and employees can find themselves skipping meals, staying after hours to complete projects or taking shortcuts.

According to the Industrial Accident Prevention Association (IAPA), being under pressure and working long hours can lead to unhealthy habits such as:

  • Poor sleep
  • Taking drugs to handle stress
  • Drinking excessively
  • Feeling anxious or depressed
  • Not exercising

The IAPA finds that when people engage in these behaviours, they are more likely to:

  • Become distracted
  • Make dangerous errors in judgment
  • Put their bodies under stress, increasing the potential for strains and sprains
  • Fail in normal activities that require hand-eye or foot-eye co-ordination

As well, Health and Safety Ontario found that employees in unhealthy workplaces are 2-3 times more likely to have an accident, 3 times more likely to have heart problems and 2 to 3 times more likely to have mental health issues than workers who aren’t stressed.

If you don’t want to be a statistic, start with your own health. Better yet, sign up for exercise classes during lunch hour or join a walking group for additional fitness punch. Check whether your workplace health and benefits plan offers fitness or nutrition workshops as part of a wellness program.

You can also control how much sleep you get and how you eat. Dieticians of Canada recommends that shift workers, who have particularly difficult jobs due to irregular working hours, avoid sugary drinks, stay well-hydrated (but not with too much caffeine), choose small meals and bring healthy snacks to prevent runs to vending machines.

Take a hard look at your workspace

Rourke says that over time, employees can get complacent about their workplace set-up and function. She says that in some cases, staffers see a concern – such as an unsafe practice – report it and move on, without following up to see whether the issue has been resolved. “It just becomes habit,” says Rourke.

But to prevent injuries, it’s critical to be vigilant about every safety issue, be it a box in a place where someone can trip over it, or poor air quality from a manufacturing process. “We have to be conscious of those complacencies,” Rourke says, “and always work against them.”

Cheryl Witoski, an ergonomics consultant and partner with Injury Prevention Plus in Ottawa, says a scan of your work environment can be very helpful in identifying issues that can lead to musculoskeletal injuries.

She says a neutral posture is key. “When the head is aligned with the shoulder and the hips and natural spinal curves are maintained, the risk of injury is reduced,” says Witoski.

If you are feeling pain or discomfort, it could be from sitting in a non-neutral posture. Check if there are ergonomic guidelines or training available for your work station (about such things as the angle of your monitor and the height of your keyboard) and instructions for your chair, and adjust your chair and sitting position according to the recommendations provided. If that doesn’t help, report it and ask your employer to have an ergonomics assessment done on your workspace.

“People are sometimes reluctant to report [an unhealthy seating set-up], as they don’t want to be viewed as complainers or to worry about losing their jobs,” Witoski says. “They also feel a problem will gradually resolve itself, and tend to wait to see if this happens or perhaps try to problem-solve themselves.”

But failing to report a hazard can cause a serious injury, which could lead to increased time off work and even disability. And everyone is at risk. “Musculoskeletal disorders in the workplace are very common – 80% of any given population will have some sort of back problem in their lifetimes,” says Witoski.

5 ways to prevent workplace injuries

She suggests taking the following steps to help prevent injuries:

  1. Managers can conduct walking meetings: “Rather than creating a long email trail, go for a walk with that co-worker and brainstorm as you walk; then return to your cubicle to summarize the main points discussed.”
  2. Set reminders on your computer to get up/stretch/move. “Ideally this should be done every half hour,” Witoski suggests.
  3. Get up and walk to a co-worker’s cubicle versus sending an email.
  4. In an office setting, move your chair in close to the desk/keyboard so the armrests are almost touching the desk and are the same height as your keyboard. This helps to neutralize your posture and reduces reaching.
  5. Look away from the monitor every 20 minutes towards something in the distance to rest the muscles used for close-range reading.

Rourke recommends that managers do walk-throughs of their workspaces to see first-hand how their people are performing their tasks. “Are they following procedure? Are they using tools correctly? Are workstations cluttered?”

“There are always opportunities to improve on safety.”