The manufacturing industry is in a state of transformation. Technological changes have led to increased automation, and the collection and analysis of data related to production processes is now commonplace.

But the transformation is about more than processes — it’s also about people. The industry increasingly needs employees with high-tech backgrounds who are proficient in mathematics and analytics, notes Hitachi Solutions. These folks can be hard to find because manufacturing often isn’t their preferred career choice, plus, we’re experiencing employment levels that haven’t been seen in more than 50 years. Add the ongoing retirement of the Baby Boomers to this mix and you get a sense for what manufacturers are facing. In fact, an analysis by Deloitte projected a dearth of 2.5 million to 3.5 million manufacturing workers by 2025.

Getting the most out of your workforce

In the face of such a tight labor market, a common reaction among employers is to focus on lifting wages and benefits to attract and retain the highly skilled employees they need. However, there are limits to how long they can sustain this without it impacting their bottom line. Often employers simply have to figure out a way to do more with less, which means getting the most out of the workforce they already have.

In response, employers commonly turn toward processes — how can they improve processes, thereby improving employee productivity? But there’s something else, often not considered, that can have a significant impact on both employee productivity and the company’s bottom line. It’s the health of their workforce.

Workforce health, productivity, and expenses

Certain health conditions are more prevalent in manufacturing than other employment sectors, and they can have a dramatic impact on both employee productivity and company profitability. Consider that:

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that workers exposed to loud noise at work are more likely to have high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Among occupations, manufacturing was rated the third-highest for the level of noise exposure.

  • Four of the 10 most expensive health conditions for all U.S. employees are related to heart disease, according to the CDC.

  • The American Heart Association estimates that health care costs for an employee with high blood pressure are 33 percent higher than the costs for an employee with normal blood pressure.

  • An employee with heart disease also notches 56 more lost productivity hours and 13 more lost workdays than employees without heart disease.

There’s a lot employers can do to encourage and maintain better health among their employees, such as workforce health programs, injury-prevention education programs, and more. However, one of the biggest things they can do is consider the way health care services are delivered to their employees through the company health plan. Health care delivery models can have a significant impact on both employee health — especially for those with chronic diseases — and a company’s overall health plan costs.

Coordinated vs. fragmented health care

Coordinated health care, also known as “integrated care,” is recognized by many health care experts as the optimum model for care delivery. In an integrated system, primary care doctors, specialists — think, cardiologists, for example — clinical pharmacists, and lab, mental health and X-ray providers are linked through a single, computerized health record system, or an “electronic health record” (EHR). The EHR allows all providers in an integrated system to see a patient’s updated medical record in real time. They can coordinate care across medical disciplines and provider locations to make sure that nothing falls through the cracks. They actively manage patient care so the patient doesn’t have to.

In a non-integrated or “fragmented” system, providers often are not linked through a single EHR. Even in cases where multiple providers have EHRs, they may not be able to exchange information about the patient because their systems are either not connected or not compatible with each other. And this doesn’t even get to the issue of lab and X-ray services, which are often provided by third parties. In a fragmented system, care coordination falls on the patient. This can lead to “care gaps” — instances when a patient doesn’t get needed health care treatment. These gaps can be especially disruptive to the care of patients with chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease.

Good health means higher productivity

Doing everything in your power to maintain the health of your workforce can go a long way toward maintaining employee productivity and your bottom line. Both are critical given the looming labor shortage in manufacturing. Improving processes certainly is key to that effort, but processes break down when employees aren’t at their healthiest. That’s why a close look at a company’s health plan is just as critical a close look at workplace processes.

Melissa Chisum is senior director of Small Group Sales for Kaiser Permanente health plans. Reach her at