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Illustration by Brett Affrunti

Safety first.

There’s a reason why this mantra is common in workplaces nationwide. Employee injuries and incidents are a major concern for all types of businesses, cutting into productivity, reducing profits, and sometimes even resulting in expensive lawsuits. Add to that the human toll of workers whose personal lives are disrupted by on-the-job incidents.

Senior living is no exception. In fact, employee injuries at senior living communities occur more frequently than in other industries, though the injuries also tend to be less severe than in other jobs.

Senior living communities had a nonfatal injury and illness incidence rate of 6.5 per 100 full-time workers in 2016, according to the most recent statistics available from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. This compares to an incidence rate of 2.9 cases per 100 employees across all industries.

The average assisted living community will have 2.5 injuries for every $1 million of payroll per year, according to Assurance, an insurance brokerage company. Assisted living jobs are mostly physical in nature as staff members are required to bend and lift as they help residents with their activities of daily living. Back and shoulder strains are the most common injuries, typically incurred when transferring a resident.

Slips and falls are also frequent causes of injury to workers. Wet shower rooms, cluttered back hallways, and busy dining venues can be dangerous places. Uncooperative and combative residents also pose a risk to workers, accounting for a number of injuries particularly in memory care neighborhoods and communities.

Other types of incidents are becoming more common, too. Claims of harassment and risks associated with social media must be addressed by executive directors and other managers.

Best practices can lessen the damage. A series of well thought out policies and procedures can help keep employees safe, and also help reduce the cost of lost days at work and the potential for lawsuits. Here are five best practices to reduce risk to both employees and senior living providers:

Number 1 graphic

Establish a risk management program

The first step is to create a comprehensive risk management program that is multi-faceted and interdisciplinary. This means including all departments in the program, such as human resources, marketing, clinical, dining, and building operations. The program should also include elements of prevention and training, along with the development of standards, policies, and procedures. A good program will also provide workers with access to occupational health treatments and clinics.

Prevention is a good place to start, according to Frank Russo, senior vice president of risk and legal affairs at Silverado, a provider of memory care with nearly 60 locations. The company’s “safety star” program recognizes safe work and rewards employees for completing their jobs correctly. “Workers are incentivized for safe work,” he said.

At the community level, Russo recommends establishing a safety committee. This group should include stakeholders from various departments that discuss incidents and bring safety issues to the attention of management. “We have a monthly safety committee meeting in each location,” said Russo. “This empowers local communities to create a culture and atmosphere of safety.”

Monthly safety meetings are also a best practice at LCS, an operator of more than 140 senior living communities. The interdisciplinary team includes representatives of each department, according to Yvonne Rickert, vice president and senior director of human resources at LCS. The chair of the safety committee is typically either the director of human resources or the executive director at the community.

Prior to the meeting, committee members conduct safety rounds. All areas of the community are checked. Back hallways are scouted for problems, such as clutter and slick floors. “Everything should be clean and free of hazards,” said Rickert.

Committee members look to see if safety signs are posted, such as the step-by-step instructions at eye wash stations. Storage areas are inspected to make sure they are compliant with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations.

The safety meeting itself includes a formal agenda. Injuries or illnesses are reviewed by the committee. Employees who were injured are sometimes interviewed by the committee to find out what can be done to prevent problems. “It’s all about prevention,” said Rickert. “We are creating a zero-accident culture and the safety meeting is essential to keep safety top of mind.”

Similar to Silverado, the safety program at LCS features incentives for workers. “We do some fun things around safety,” said Rickert. She noted that Cypress Glen, a continuing care retirement community operated by LCS in North Carolina, recently reached 2 million hours without lost work time—an achievement she credits to best safety practices which has created a culture of accident prevention.

All-staff meetings include a safety discussion and a raffle for a safety-related item such as a personal fire extinguisher or smoke detectors. If a community goes a certain number of days without an injury, a pizza party is thrown for the entire staff. “We are a safety driven company,” said Rickert. “If you have an engaged workforce, you have lower work-related incidents, lower turnover, and a higher level of resident satisfaction.” She added that the overarching goal is to communicate to the worker that the company cares about the worker as a person, a mother, a daughter, and a son. “It’s a holistic approach to well-being rather than just a work injury program,” said Rickert.

A companywide wellness program that encourages a healthy lifestyle, including information on how to reduce stress on the job, reinforces the notion that the company cares about the employee.

Be aware of new technology that can reduce injuries, advised Russo. The company has adopted the use of a retractable needle that prevents sticks, for example. “We are constantly looking for new ideas,” said Russo.

Another approach to the development of a comprehensive risk management program has been created by Diana Schwerha, Ph.D., associate professor of industrial systems engineering at Ohio University’s Russ College of Engineering and Technology. Her program focuses on ergonomics to reduce the number and severity of work-related injuries.

Ergonomics is defined as the study of improving the compatibility between people, processes, and products to improve safety, efficiency, and user satisfaction. Like other comprehensive risk management programs, the ergonomics approach begins with the creation of a safety group that includes various company stakeholders from different departments. “We want to get people talking about problems that cross their particular area,” said Schwerha. “The biggest challenge is to improve communication among the employees.”

The next step is to identify hazards and then prioritize the hazards based on their impact on productivity and quality outcomes. Interventions are developed with the help of various tools and improvements in processes such as updating procedure manuals.

“Companies have to invest in solutions for employees,” said Schwerha.

The ergonomics framework aims to determine whether an intervention is the best solution to improve resident care and efficiency, while avoiding an injury. For example, spending $3,000 on a lift assist device may seem like an expensive solution. But it may save each worker 20 minutes a day and also help avoid the cost of injuries. “You have to look at the solution that is best in the long run,” said Schwerha.

See steps 2-5 in the digital issue of Senior Living Executive

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