Weighty matters: the high cost of obesity in the workplace

May 30th, 2007 by Julie Ferguson

As if the link between obesity and adverse health effects weren’t substantial enough, three new studies add to the growing body of evidence that employers pay a steep cost for overweight employees.
Joanne Wojcik of Business Insurance reports on two studies linking obesity to increased employer costs for health care and workers compensation. One, conducted by the Medstat Group Inc. showed that moderate and severe obesity were linked to annual health care cost increases of 21% and 75%, respectively. Moderate obesity was associated with a $670 increase in costs, and severe obesity resulted in a $2,441 increase in costs.
Another study examining records of nearly 12 thousand workers by Duke University Medical Center linked obesity to higher medical costs and 13 times the number of lost work days than non-obese workers. Also:

” …the study found that obese workers averaged 11.65 workers compensation claims per 100 workers, while non-obese employees filed an average of 5.8 claims per 100 workers. As a result, obese employees had medical costs seven times higher, for an average of $51,019 per 100 employees. The most common causes of injury among obese workers were slips, falls and attempts to lift something.”

In a third study, CCH reports that researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Center for Injury Research and Policy recently published a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology showing that obesity increases the risk of traumatic workplace injury. Rsearchers studied medical and injury data on employees in eight separate locations of a large aluminum manufacturer.

“Employees were grouped into five categories: underweight, normal, overweight, obesity levels I and II and obesity level III.
Of the 7,690 workers included in the study, 29 percent were injured at least once between January 2, 2002, and December 31, 2004. Approximately 85 percent of the injured workers were classified as overweight or obese. More than 28 percent of injuries occurred among employees classified as overweight, 30 percent in the obese I and II category and almost 34 percent in the obese III category.
The severely obese group who had a BMI of greater than 40 also had the most injuries to the hand/wrist/finger (22 percent) when compared to the same injuries in the other weight categories. Almost 10 percent of all injuries in the obese III group were to the leg/knee, compared to 7 percent of workers classified as overweight, which was the next highest injury rate.”

Braun Consulting, experts in labor, employee, and human resources issues, has gathered some additional facts and statistics on the obesity problem:

  • The number of Americans considered obese by the CDC in 2001 was 44 million – or approximately one in five. This is a 74 percent increase since 1991.
  • Obesity is growing at two or three times GDP!
  • The percentage of U.S. adults classified as obese doubled between 1980 and 2000, from 15% to 31%. (1999 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, CDC National Center for Health Statistics).
  • On average one out of every three people you know and work with could be considered obese.
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control. obesity has roughly the same association with chronic health conditions as 20 years of aging.
  • The Surgeon General reports that more than 9 percent of the nation’s health care expenditures are directly related to obesity and physical inactivity. They calculate that to cost out at about $117 billion annually and relate to 300,000 deaths per year.
  • UnumProvident, a provider of disability income protection insurance, reports a tenfold increase over the past decade in short-term disability claims attributed to obesity, based on research using their disability database.

The same article includes additional statistics about health costs of obesity and offers concrete suggestions for employers to add to wellness programs. These include:

  • Making on-site wight loss programs available at work.
  • Sponsoring or subsidizing health club memberships
  • Working with group health vendors to develop programs targeting obese populations.
  • Implementing a healthy eating campaign, including healthy options in cafeterias and vending machines.
  • Encouraging employees to walk outside during their lunch hour
  • Seeking employee educations materials and disease management programs from health care vendors.
  • Providing EAPs for private counseling or community-based weight management programs.
  • Offering incentives, such as a discount on health care premiums.