At What Point Does Safety Become Overly Intrusive?

By Phil La Duke 

With the rising costs associated with healthcare, an aging workforce more likely to require treatment for chronic illness, and the simple fact that people in good physical condition tend to injured less severely than those who are out of shape organizations are increasingly able to argue that what you do on your own time is indeed their business; but is it?

Off-the-job injuries often spill over onto the job and create sticky situations.  A worker how twists his ankle in a pickup game may claim the injury happened at work, or a worker who, eager to get home to weekend fun, may twist his ankle at work and not recognize the severity of the injury UNTIL the pick-up game.  Ergonomic injuries can be exacerbated by daily home activities, and even if the injury doesn’t ever cross over into the workplace, a worker crippled doing yard work is still a valuable resource lost.

On one hand, our life-style choices can have a profound influence—not just on our own safety but on the safety of those around us. On the other hand, few of us feel that a paycheck and medical benefits give employers the right to dictate whether or not we can smoke, drink to excess, or eat like Orson Wells at $4.95 all-you-can-eat buffet.  Clearly there is a line between an employer’s right (heck responsibility) to intervene in employees’ destructive habits even though they are on the employees’ personal time, but it is often difficult to find that line in a way that all parties believe it to be equitable and fair.

I know of a safety engineer at a construction company that used to instruct workers in the correct use, and importance of using, condoms; seriously, what does that have to do with job safety? And what of the “take safety home” campaigns? In some cases, these efforts to keep people safe off hours actually do more harm than good.  I once shared the speaker’s podium with an expert in hearing protection who got visibly agitated at the mention of encouraging workers to use hearing protection when mowing their lawns.  He told me that unless the individual was mowing his or her lawn for over 45 minutes the dangers of the loss of situational awareness were far more hazardous than the exposure to noise.  In fact, he recommended routine yearly maintenance on law-mowing equipment as an alternative; he said the biggest problem in yard work was damaged mufflers on equipment.

So at what point does a worker have the right to live his or her life as the worker pleases? Clearly there are already well-established limits to what we can do in our free time and still keep our jobs. After all, we can’t be out on crystal meth benders and show up for work after going three days without sleep, but what about those things that we have a legal right to do on our own time like washing down that fourth hoagie with a side of poutine and half a gallon of brown syrup water? Or smoking, or drinking a case of beer on a Saturday?

I’m Getting Too Old For This

The line used to be the physical condition that resulted from the activities.  If we were too fat or hung over or short of breath to do the job the employer fired us and hired someone who could do the job.  Some people thought that was fair and some thought it wasn’t, but generally speaking most people at least understood where the line was and irrespective of their feelings about the practice felt as if they had a choice, as if they had some control over their destinies. Now, however, there are all sorts of mixed signals about how intrusive employers can get.  In my home state of Michigan (one of the fattest in the U.S.) it is unlawful to discriminate against someone because of their weight.  Similarly, the U.S. federal HIPPA regulations protects people’s rights to medical privacy, and the American’s with Disabilities Act  (ADA) protects the rights of the disabled from discrimination. In effect, the law is on the side of the individual, and not just in the U.S. and yet increasingly, employers are pushing hard to regulate workers’ off-the-job behaviors.

Technology Makes It Easier

In the early days of the Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford hired private detectives to follow his workers to ensure they didn’t drink, smoke, gamble or generally live their lives in ways in which he didn’t approve.  As the company grew in size it rapidly became unfeasible—it just wasn’t cost effective to pay a team of detectives to tail workers.  Technology has brought things full circle—companies are doing random drug and alcohol testing (which for the record I believe is rational and appropriate) but technology has also brought tobacco testing. While I believe that you if you take a job with the understanding that you do not at the point of hire use tobacco and pledge not to do so throughout the tenure of employment the company certainly has the right to check to ensure that you are honoring your commitment, how long before companies start doing random cholesterol or blood sugar testing? Is it a stretch to believe that companies will require (or attempt to require) workers to submit to annual blood work to ensure they are controlling and avoiding “lifestyle illnesses”? Before you answer, recognize that a growing number of insurers are charging higher premiums for people who are over weight, have high cholesterol or similar risk factors and who refuse to make an effort to reduce the risk.

It’s Not Just Health Factors

I think it’s easy to point and the high cost of medical treatment and the costs incurred by employers and think that this intrusiveness is justified, even appropriate, and maybe it is, but what about off-the-job safety? Insurers routinely hire detectives to spy on the makers of dubious workers’ compensation claims.  Is it beyond the realm of possibility that this will continue to inappropriate extremes? At what point is it none of my employer’s damned business what I do on my own time?

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