Easy-to-use tool measures benefits and costs of OHS initiatives

The Institute for Work & Health introduces the Health & Safety Smart Planner – a new, user-friendly tool that is designed to help workplaces understand the full benefits and costs of occupational health and safety programs and interventions.

A free, user-friendly software program developed by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) can help workplaces see the benefits and costs of their health and safety programs. Called the Health & Safety Smart Planner, the tool is expected to be available for downloading from IWH’s website by the spring of 2010.

Health and safety planning should be based on a thorough analysis of all the benefits and costs associated with an intervention. This can be a challenge for workplaces to undertake, says Dr. Emile Tompa, an IWH scientist and economist who led the software development. In the Smart Planner, we’ve tried to build sound economic principles into a format that’s easy to use.

The up-front costs of occupational health and safety (OHS) initiatives can deter firms from investing in them. Yet the overall benefits – such as lower injury rates or productivity gains – may outweigh these costs over time. The Smart Planner helps to present a complete picture of all the benefits and costs. In technical terms, this is known as an economic evaluation, an area in which Tompa is an expert.

There are several versions of the Smart Planner. The first one, designed for the manufacturing and service sectors in Ontario, was funded by Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board’s Research Advisory Council. Another version, supported by funding from WorkSafeBC, is being developed for the health-care sector in British Columbia.

Tool based on economic evaluation research

Through other research projects, we realized that workplaces and other interested parties lack guidance on how to conduct this type of evaluation, even though it provides valuable information on the resource implications of an OHS intervention, says Tompa.

In 2007, Tompa led a systematic review that looked at studies of effective OHS programs that also considered benefits and costs. There was a notable lack of studies with an economic component. However, the review ultimately found that several types of OHS programs, such as ergonomic interventions in the manufacturing and warehousing sector, led to both health and financial returns. This approach can make a stronger case for investing in OHS.

Tompa and other IWH colleagues also edited a methods text entitled Economic Evaluation of Interventions for Occupational Health and Safety. It is designed to strengthen good practices in this area among economists and other researchers. Realizing that workplaces needed more immediate evidence and an easier way to do an economic evaluation, Tompa came up with the concept of the Smart Planner.

It offers a step-by-step approach, with simple explanations throughout, prompting the user to enter the necessary information (see below). The software makes the key calculations, which appear on a summary sheet. In addition, it features a database that stores the costs of ongoing OHS incidents in a workplace, as well as the economic analyses of interventions.

The first version has just been completed, but further developments are underway. There are plans to incorporate video training clips into the software and customize another version for Manitoba, as its Workers Compensation Board recently approved a grant for this purpose.

This spring, you can download it from: www.iwh.on.ca/smart-planner.

Using the Smart Planner: A Hypothetical Example of How it Works

Suppose you are an ergonomist at a large firm whose workers experience a large number of musculoskeletal or soft-tissue injuries. Your management team supports the idea of making ergonomic adjustments to workstations, but doesn’t want to purchase new equipment or involve staff.

You think that a more intensive approach, involving participatory ergonomics (PE) is needed. An IWH review has shown PE reduces injuries, and a new IWH guide to PE program success provides information on how to implement it (see www.iwh.on.ca/pe-guide). You decide to try the H&S Smart Planner to get some cost and benefit information to support your case.

You begin using the Smart Planner by recording ongoing musculoskeletal incidents in the database, which stores this information on your desktop. This is part of the software called the “Incident Cost Calculator.” This calculator considers the type of incident, time taken off by the worker, workers’ compensation costs, lost productivity expenses and other relevant factors. You decide to capture this information over six months, following the guidance from the “Help” section of the Smart Planner.

Once the management team sees how much these injuries are costing, they agree to try a PE program. They even allot a budget for equipment modifications and time for staff training. With their buy-in, you’ve cleared the first hurdle in ensuring successful implementation. You are asked to report back in another six months.

Time to refer to the Smart Planner again. You decide to compare injury rates in your firm before the PE program and after. This is called the “Before and After” analysis.

You already have the “Before” costs stored in the Incident Cost Calculator. The Smart Planner walks you through the “After” stage to input the changes resulting from the PE program. There are costs in terms of staff time to analyze workstations or hold meetings, alter equipment and to complete other tasks related to the initiative. There are also potential positive consequences, such as productivity improvements, fewer injuries and related costs, and other benefits, all of which you are prompted to enter in the software. You also continue to record incidents as they occur.

Finally, six months later, you print out your summary sheet to show the full benefits and costs of your PE program. Your management team is pleased. The overall costs in terms of staff time and ergonomic adjustments amounted to $8,900. However, comparing the “before” and “after” periods, the company has saved $22,000 in fewer days off work due to soft-tissue injuries. Furthermore, productivity is up three per cent.

Source: At Work, Issue 59, Winter 2010: Institute for Work & Health, Toronto