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Injury rates for obese workers much higher
Having a body mass index (BMI) in the overweight or obese range increases the risk of traumatic workplace injury, say researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for Injury Research and Policy.1
The researchers used medical and injury surveillance data on hourly workers employed in eight plants of the same aluminum manufacturer to determine whether increased BMI was a risk factor for workplace injury. Of the 7,690 workers included in the study, 29% were injured at least once between Jan. 2, 2002, and Dec. 31, 2004. Approximately 85% of the injured workers were classified as overweight or obese.
The researchers recommend employer-sponsored weight loss and maintenance programs as part of a well-rounded workplace safety plan. It is not known whether obesity prevention efforts will improve injury rates and reduce lost work time, acknowledges Keshia M. Pollack, MPH, PHD, the study's lead author and assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. "Evaluation of worksite health promotion and obesity prevention efforts should measure changes not only in employee health, but also traumatic injury," she advises.
While there are multiple studies that link obesity and the risk and prevalence of workplace injuries, more evidence is needed, says Pollack. "Obesity is not a necessary or sufficient cause of workplace injury. Therefore, occupational health managers should still focus limited resources on the most prominent and modifiable risk factors for injury. However, we know the risk of injury is compounded by some individual employee risk factors; body mass index is another one of these factors that warrants more attention." At a minimum, occupational health managers [OHMs] should be aware of the association with acute injuries as well as cumulative injuries, she says.
Pollack recommends presenting the potential cost savings and return on investment to garner support for prevention programs. "In addition to dollar amounts, OHMs could assess the impact of health promotion/disease prevention programs on other indicators including absenteeism, injury rates, and return to work," she says.
Data from Duke University Medical Center revealed similar findings.2 "Our data show jobs with elevated injury risks, as well as increased risk due to obesity," says study co-author John Dement, PhD, professor of occupational and environmental medicine and the principal investigator for development of the workplace safety surveillance program at Duke. The body parts most prone to injury among obese workers were the lower extremity, wrist or hand, and back. The most common causes of these injuries were falls or slips and lifting.
"We also saw some indications of an interaction of these two risk factors to increase risks beyond that attributable to each factor alone," says Dement. This increase suggests that programs with the greatest potential to impact injury rates and costs are those that address both of these factors simultaneously, he says.
Dement says that the best strategy is to intervene not only for individual risk factors, but also within the workplace to reduce the overall risk of injury. "By targeting obesity and workplace risks simultaneously, we can reduce absenteeism, increase the overall health of our workers, and decrease the cost of health care for all employees," says Dement.
1. Pollack KM, Sorock GS, Slade M, et al. The association of body mass index and occupational injury in hourly manufacturing employees. Amer J Epidemiology 2007; Advance Access published online on May 7, 2007.
2. Ostbye T, Dement JM, Krause KM. Obesity and workers' compensation: Results from the Duke health and safety surveillance system. Arch Intern Med. 2007; 167:766-773.
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