Editorial: Will Business Take the Carrot?

As health care costs climb, workplace wellness programs become an increasingly attractive tool for businesses and safety managers.

Health care costs this year will hit nearly $2 trillion. Benefits experts predict health care costs will increase 8 percent in 2005. Towers Perrin Health Care Cost Survey notes that while this appears to offer some relief from recent annual increases, "closer analysis reveals that, dollar for dollar, the cost increase in 2005, at an average of $582 per employee, is still unsustainable for most employers."

While health care cost increases are spurred by a complex web of factors, one thing is clear: Americans and their employers are paying a high price for a lifestyle that is frequently unhealthy. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 129 million Americans are overweight or obese, a condition that puts them at risk for diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, and 60 percent of Americans do not get enough exercise. In combination, these problems account for 400,000 preventable deaths a year.

Dr. Charles Schutz, chief medical officer for Destiny Health, points out the disparity between the national statistics cited above and how we see ourselves. In a study of 1,004 adults, 67 percent categorized themselves as being "physically active" and only 30 percent thought they were overweight.

"The saddest part of the survey findings is that nearly eight of 10 respondents said they would take better care of themselves if they had a life-threatening problem," said Schutz. In fact, their lifestyles are pointing them in exactly that direction.

Last November, NIOSH Director John Howard said any coordination between those protecting employee safety and those promoting health is "often more the result of coincidence than intention." He called for a more ambitious view of occupational health that helps ensure not only that workers go home as healthy as when they came to work but that they "return to work the next day as safe and healthy as they can be."

As our cover story on DaimlerChrysler shows, many organizations are stepping up their workplace wellness efforts. But given the brutal math of health care, you have to wonder why all workplace safety and health managers are not embracing this opportunity.

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