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Stress and worker safety

What can safety pros do to address the issue?

job stress
Photo: Geber86/iStockphoto

Key points

  • Job stress may lead to a loss of focus, a common cause of workplace incidents, one stakeholder says.
  • Safety professionals should look for signs of stress among workers. Common signs include fatigue, trouble concentrating, low morale, and anxiety or irritability.
  • If a worker is suffering from stress, a safety professional should take the issue seriously and let the worker know that help is available and the worker’s safety is paramount.

Stress is a legitimate worker safety and health issue, experts say. It affects men and women, new and experienced, across every industry.

Some workers carry stress from their homes to their jobs. Others lug their work stress back home with them at night. Regardless, workers experience stress, and a stressed worker has the potential to be an unsafe worker. But few employers in the United States seem willing to tackle job stress as a safety concern.

“We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface and really examine the problem,” said Peg Seminario, director of safety and health for the AFL-CIO. “For anybody who talks to workers, this is one of the issues that’s going to come up first and foremost. We all feel it in our lives.”

So why don’t we talk about it?

Dr. David Spiegel studies and discusses stress every day. Spiegel is the medical director of the Stanford Center on Stress and Health in Stanford, CA, in addition to serving as the university’s Willson Professor and Associate Chair of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

Safety professionals can play an important role in helping workers cope with stress, he said. In doing so, those same safety professionals might prevent an incident from taking place.

“It’s very clear that a big proportion of safety problems are due to human error, and some of that is related to stress,” Spiegel said. “Life is full of stress. If you’re not stressed, you’re dead. But the thing about handling stress well is being able to appraise it, react to it appropriately and put it behind you. You need to be concerned as a manager for the overall health of your employees.”

Why stress matters

Michael Topf has seen a little bit of everything during his career. Topf has worked in safety and health since 1983, and prior to that he worked as a mental health counselor. He now offers safety training to organizations and individuals as part of Topf Initiatives in Wayne, PA.

One of Topf’s first experiences in safety remains vivid. He was asked to visit a research and development site at a major chemical company. Workers at the site included highly educated and well-trained chemists and engineers, some with a Ph.D., yet safety problems persisted.

“What I found was that some of the incidents they were having had to do with people being under a good deal of stress,” Topf said. “What I found is that stress has an impact on safety.”

The past three-plus decades have reinforced Topf’s “light bulb” moment. He has witnessed the negative safety effects of stress in transportation, construction and a variety of other industries. Often, Topf said, workers may deal with stress by turning to drugs, alcohol or medication – any of which could have negative effects that carry over into the work shift.

“It’s pretty universal, from my perspective,” Topf said. “People learn to stuff their feelings. They hide their stress. They think, ‘You need to be bigger than it.’ So it all goes in, but it doesn’t go away – it’s all stored in your body somewhere. It’s stored mentally and it’s stored physically.

“If you work hard and you’re under stress and then you go to the gym – and you run or you swim or you bicycle or whatever it is – you burn off a lot of the residue of the adrenaline and other adrenal-cortical hormones that have been released into the system. But so many people are couch potatoes, and they go home and they sit down. … Or you go to your doctor and say, ‘I’m under stress,’ and the doctor says, ‘Well, here, take this Valium or Librium’ or whatever they prescribe today.

“So it masks the stress, but the problem doesn’t go away. … It’s kind of like if you had a dirt spot on the wall and you painted over it. The dirt is still there.”

It is the type of dirt that can get people hurt. Take the construction industry, for example.

“When you’re under stress, one of the things that is on your mind is the source of the stress,” Topf said. “It creates a distraction. Let’s say you’ve got a sick parent in the hospital, and you get to work and you’re climbing a ladder or you’re on scaffolding. While you’re walking along on the scaffolding, part of your attention is on where you’re walking and what you’re doing, but also part of your attention is on your sick mother in the hospital. Loss of focus or inattention is a major cause of injury.”

What you can do

It’s easy to tell whether a worker is wearing a hard hat, safety goggles or other piece of personal protective equipment. However, an intangible such as a person’s stress level isn’t always easy to identify.

Warning signs exist, though. The Center for the Promotion of Health in the New England Workplace outlines more than a dozen potential signs of job stress, including:

  • Trouble concentrating
  • Fatigue
  • Low morale
  • Anxiety or irritability
  • Alcohol or drug use
  • Overeating or loss of appetite
  • Workplace incidents
  • Workplace violence

The agency cites a number of work factors and organizational practices that serve as potential job stressors. Among them: excessive workload, fear of being laid off, unreasonable performance demands and infrequent breaks. Organizational practices that can trigger stress include favoritism, inflexible rules, low pay and benefits, poor communication, and lack of input on decisions.

Spiegel said supervisors can help reduce job stress – or prevent it from building – by fostering positive, communicative relationships with workers.

“I think the issue is to be firm, fast and fair,” Spiegel said. “If something goes wrong, you don’t pretend it didn’t happen. You deal with it. You set limits or give people feedback if they need to hear about it. But always show them a way out. Put it in perspective.

“Say, ‘Look, you’ve been working here for 10 years, you’ve done a very good job, but what happened here is just not right.’ You don’t yell at them and say, ‘You messed up, you idiot.’ You put it in context. Be clear about what happened and say, ‘What you did here is wrong and I want you to discuss it and think about it. Come back to me with an action plan about how you’re going to handle the next time better.’ So you show them a way out, you show them a way to deal with it, but you’re clear about what the feedback is.”

Even if a worker’s troubles stem from home, their safety at work could be jeopardized.

Meet with workers, Topf said. Let them know you’re on their side. Approach the issue with the sensitivity that it deserves, but understand that an open conversation could be the difference between a healthy worker going forward and an incident waiting to happen.

“When we train supervisors and managers and labor safety leaders, we train them in how to deal with those sensitive issues,” Topf said. “They say, listen, if something is going on at home, I’m not trying to pry. If you want to talk to me about it, great. If you want to go to employee assistance, that’s really important. But I need to inter-?vene here because this is affecting the quality of your work, it’s affecting your safety, and you’ve got to get help for yourself.

“If I can help you, great. But if I can’t, you’ve got to go get help through any one of these sources. Because if you don’t, I’m going to have to help you take further action. I can’t allow you to hurt yourself or anybody else. I’m here on your side. I’m trying to help you.”

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