Dennis Richling, M.D., president of the Midwest Business Group on Health, delivered a keynote address at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health's (NIOSH) symposium "Steps to a Healthier U.S. Work Force," held in Washington, D.C. Oct. 26-28. Soon after the speech, OH's Washington editor spoke with Richling about the aims of the NIOSH event and the urgency of addressing employee health in a new way.
OH: What is the purpose of this NIOSH symposium?
Richling: I think the number one issue is the total health status of the employee population. That includes health promotion, safety and health protection, and performance issues within the workplace.
OH: Is tying all three perspectives together a new trend?
Richling: Yes. Based on my work with safety and health professionals, I'm seeing a lot more thought about the individual as a whole person: the work environment, the culture they're living in and how this affects that individual's health status and productivity.
OH: Why are EHS professionals well positioned to lead this effort?
Richling: My experience has been that within organizations, there's a need for technical competence in evaluating data, how that data relates to the health of an individual, translating that into some strategy as an organization, and them implementing tactical plans that impact the individual worker. If we go back to the workplace, who's been doing this long term? Safety professionals.
Also, safety professionals have an influence point with operational managers and they can advance the cause because they have some credibility that's been built up.
Finally, if companies adopt this at a top level and push it down, operational managers are going to need help to understand what to do. If safety professionals understand this and how to help them, they can become a resource.
OH: What got you interested in integrating these different areas?
Richling: I was a corporate medical director with Union Pacific Railroad and I was working in a very traditional occupational health setting, evaluating physical exams done on people. I was also working with our safety department and looking at the sources of injuries within the company. It was actually somebody from the safety department who first came to me and said, "We're thinking about how we can work on the concept of health promotion. …