DAWSON -- Leaders at Johnson Memorial Health Services first started talking late in 2009 about how they could make the workplace safer for their 220 employees.
Three years later, the Dawson hospital and nursing home has earned MnSHARP certification, a designation by the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry that singles out employers who go above and beyond in meeting safety requirements.
Johnson Memorial is the first nursing home -- and only the second hospital -- in the state to achieve what Ken Peterson, commissioner of the Department of Labor and Industry, called a demanding set of standards.
"Most places can't meet the qualifications," he said.
State and local officials mingled Thursday with the staff at Johnson Memorial for a formal recognition ceremony that included a buffet lunch and cake.
"It's a big deal," said Kathy Johnson, chief executive and administrator. Several Dawson residents joined the festivities, she noted. "There are many folks who came."
MnSHARP stands for Safety and Health Recognition Achievement Program. Thirty-nine Minnesota employers with under 500 employees, mostly in the manufacturing industry, have qualified so far. The Department of Labor and Industry has a similar program, MnSTAR, for employers with more than 500 workers. Only one hospital in the state has earned MnSTAR certification; 31 large employers in all are certified.
Although hospitals and nursing homes are required to meet numerous employee safety standards as a provision of their license, health care remains one of the more injury-prone occupations.
Some of the highest rates for U.S. work-related injuries overall are among certified nursing assistants. Strains and sprains are the most common. Health care workers also are vulnerable to needlesticks, exposure to blood and body fluids, falls, exposure to hazardous substances and other harms.
Johnson Memorial began by bringing in an occupational safety consultant, Johnson said. "Then we started looking into it and went from there."
Over the next three years the organization identified and refined its safety measures and practices. It took steps ranging from adding protective railings around rooftop skylights to developing a safety assessment for every single job category. It addressed issues such as safe lifting and office ergonomics.
The goal was to be preventive instead of reactive, said Deb Jurgenson, the risk manager for Johnson Memorial.
"Everybody in this facility was involved," she said. "It was just a great thing to go through. It was a good learning process."
Two of the key benchmarks for earning MnSHARP status are to rank below the national average for work-related injuries and the number of work days lost due to work-related injury.
Johnson Memorial performed significantly well, with work-related injuries in 2011 that were 80 percent below the national average and lost days due to work-related injury that were 60 percent below the national average, Peterson said.
"I think it says a lot about this place," he said. "It should mean it's a good place to work. It also should result in lower costs."
"It costs less money if you don't have injuries," Johnson agreed. "We've been watching our loss ratio go down considerably. That is certainly a financial reward that goes with it."
Fewer injuries not only mean more productivity and less lost work time but also help drive down the organization's premium for workers compensation insurance, she said. In the bigger picture, it can leave more money for other priorities such as capital improvements or salary increases for the staff.
Peterson pointed to another less well-recognized aspect of safe workplaces: the attention to detail that's required to consistently meet safety standards.
This culture of paying attention to the details often spills over into the rest of the organization's practices and daily routines and can be a strong indicator of overall quality, he said. "It really is a marker for a lot of things."
Johnson said the hospital and nursing facility will continue to incorporate MnSHARP standards in their safety work. Repeat surveys will be held in the future to determine Johnson Memorial's continued eligibility.
"You have to keep your eye on that ball because if you don't, you tend to slip back into that comfort zone," Johnson said.
Going through the certification process raised the level of safety knowledge for every employee, she said. "I am so proud of this place. It's really incredible."