Healthy workplace: Top 5 FAQs about occupational medicine


By: Kodjo Bossou, M.D.
August 1, 2017


Work-related injuries are the reason behind more than 1.1 million missed work days, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s why occupational medicine providers are around — to help prevent work-related injuries and rehabilitate those who do suffer injuries. Let’s look at what occupational medicine really is and some common questions occupational medicine providers face.

Q: What is occupational medicine?

A: Occupational Medicine is a specialty medical practice concerned with the health, safety and performance of workers. Occupational medicine professionals have expertise in determining the ability of employees to perform work, the arrangements of work, the physical, chemical and biological environments of the workplace, and the health outcomes of environmental exposures.  Using this expertise, occupational medicine providers offer a full spectrum of services aimed at keeping employees healthy and safe at work.  This might include employment physical examinations, medical surveillance, drug and alcohol testing, MRO services, injury care, DOT examinations and more.

Q: Why is occupational medicine important to a company’s bottom line?

A: Healthy workers are more productive, and work-related injuries can be very expensive. The direct cost of injuries, such as the cost of medical care, can be small when compared to the indirect costs associated with workplace disruption, lost productivity, lost work days, retraining and so on. When an injury does occur, it needs to be managed well in order to return the injured worker to a state of health and productivity as soon as possible.  An occupational medicine provider will work with employee, the employer, the workers’ compensation insurer and the medical system in order to help the injured worker regain functional abilities and return to work as quickly as possible.

Q: I hurt my back at work. Should I take time off to rest?

A: The first step is to be evaluated by a provider to determine what is causing the pain. We frequently see back injuries in occupational medicine as these can be related to work activities. If there is not concern for a fracture or herniated disc, the best treatment is anti-inflammatory medication, stretching and modified work activities to keep as active as able. Bed rest has been shown to prolong healing time for back injuries. Time away from work is rarely needed if the employer is willing to provide work which meets the recommended restrictions.  It is important to keep moving as much as possible.  Any absence from work should be kept as brief as possible to avoid unnecessary disability.

Q: How do I prevent back pain and injuries at work?

A: Here are some basic tactics you can employ to keep your back healthy at work:

  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Strive for 30 minutes of exercise each day.
  • Use good posture — keep weight balanced on your feet, avoid slouching, and use a pillow or rolled towel on your chair, if needed, to support your back.
  • Lift heavy objects using your legs, not your back.
  • Pay attention to your body — if you’re aching, take a break or ask for help.
  • Try to break up repetitive tasks.
Q: What should I do about pain and numbness in my hand?

A: Pain and numbness in the hand can be related to multiple conditions; it is critical that you see a provider as soon as possible for evaluation. Early intervention will typically lead to a more positive outcome. As with any injury, if you think the pain is caused by your work activities, an occupational medicine provider will want to learn more about your job, your symptoms and how the injury occurred.

Most hand pain can be reversed quickly with temporary work modifications, decreasing inflammation, and/or therapeutic exercise as appropriate. If the pain was caused by ergonomic issues at your workstation, a professional may come to your work site to do an evaluation and recommend modifications to improve ergonomics and prevent re occurrence.

Kodjo Bossou, M.D., is a Mayo Clinic Health System physician in Employee Health and Wellness.

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