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Work-Based Programs for Healthy Eating, Physical Activity May Help Companies, Experts Say

April 23, 2007 -- Obesity may raise workers' compensation claims, a new study shows.

The study included more than 11,700 Duke University workers who had at least one medical checkup from 1997-2004.

During the study, participants filed a total of 2,539 workers' compensation claims topping $5 million in medical claims and another $5 million in indemnity claims.

Workers' comp claims were more common and costlier for obese employees, judging by BMI data from the patients' medical records. BMI -- or body mass index -- is a measure that relates height to weight.

The researchers, who work in the community and family medicine department of Duke University Medical Center, included Truls Ostbye, MD, PhD.

They checked the workers' medical records and found that 2% were underweight, 42% were normal weight, 30% were overweight but not obese, 21% were mildly or moderately obese, and 5% were severely obese.

Obesity and Workers' Comp Claims

Workers' comp claims rose with workers' BMI, the study shows.

For instance, nearly six workers' comp claims were filed per 100 workers of normal BMI, compared with more than 11 claims filed per 100 of the heaviest workers.

Medical claims costs per 100 workers were as follows:

  • Normal BMI: $7,500
  • Overweight: More than $13,300
  • Mildly obese: More than $19,000
  • Moderately obese: More than $23,300
  • Severely obese: More than $51,000 per 100 very obese workers

"The number of lost workdays was almost 13 times higher, medical costs were seven times higher, and indemnity claims costs were 11 times higher among the heaviest employees compared with those of recommended weight," write the researchers.

Obesity was particularly linked to workers' comp claims for falls, slips, lifting, exertion, back pain, and injuries to the hand, wrist, knee, hip, or ankle. Physically demanding jobs carried the highest risk.

Incentive for Companies to Help

Companies may help their bottom line by promoting healthy lifestyles for their workers, the study suggests.

"It is increasingly common for employers to support healthy lifestyle interventions such as healthy cafeteria food, on-site fitness facilities, and encouragement of physical activity during work breaks," write the researchers.

"Our study lends support to the notion that such programs may not only improve the health of employees but also be financially beneficial," they add.

Ostbye and colleagues say workplace-based programs on healthy eating and physical activity should be developed and evaluated as an addition to other workplace safety strategies.

The study appears in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

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