Wellness at Work

Study Identifies Workers at Highest Risks for Obesity

Study findings could help employers target wellness efforts.
By: | May 12, 2014

Truck drivers and protective service workers in Washington state are at high risk of obesity while employees in the natural and social sciences, post-secondary teaching, and attorney and judicial occupations are at the low end, according to new research. The findings may serve as a guide for employers to target wellness programs to specific workplaces.

Information related to the prevalence of and risk factors for worker obesity by occupation are scarce. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health studied more than 37,000 workers in Washington state to help the prioritization of workplace wellness programs.

“According to the 2007 and 2008 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, the obesity prevalence among all workers was 26.1 percent in Washington State, similar to the national average of 27.0 percent, making the workplace a valuable opportunity to prevent obesity and promote health,” the research states. “Effective workplace health intervention programs will lower absenteeism and health care costs, improve health conditions and health behaviors of employees, and improve worker productivity.”

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The scientists surveyed workers in odd numbered years from 2003 to 2009. They estimated obesity risk by occupational groups adjusting for things such as demographics, occupational physical activity level, smoking, fruit and vegetable consumption, and leisure time physical activity.

“Workers whose occupational physical activities were physically demanding, involving movement and heavy labor, had significantly lower prevalence of obesity compared with those with nonphysically demanding jobs,” the researchers wrote. “Occupations with a high prevalence of obesity had a lower prevalence of vigorous leisure time physical activity, a lower prevalence of adequate fruit and vegetable consumption and a higher prevalence of smoking.”

The researchers hope the findings will help influence stakeholders as they develop workplace wellness programs. Also, they said it can aid in decisions about allocations of public health resources to high-risk worker groups most likely to benefit.

“Poor health behaviors can lead to chronic disease. Workers with chronic disease may be at higher risk for workplace injury, have more absenteeism, and diminished productivity at work. Once injured, workers with chronic diseases take a longer time to return to work,” the study says. “So the best strategy would be for employers to promote healthy behaviors to prevent the occurrence of these chronic diseases.”

Employers looking for appropriate ways to promote healthier workers are advised to consult the NIOSH Total Worker Health program, which advances the integration of health protection and health promotion in the workplace. The goal is to improve the quality and safety of work and empower employees for better health-related decision-making.

Nancy Grover is the president of NMG Consulting and the Editor of Workers' Compensation Report, a publication of our parent company, LRP Publications. She can be reached at [email protected]

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]