Study: Obesity Increased Workers' Comp Costs

April 24, 2007
According to the results of a new study, obese workers filed twice the number of workers' compensation claims, had seven times higher medical costs from those claims and lost 13 times more days from work injuries or work illnesses than non-obese workers.

Published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, the results of the study from the Duke University Medical Center also showed that workers with higher-risk jobs were found to be more likely to file workers’ compensation claims, and obese workers in high-risk jobs incurred the highest costs, both economically and medically.

“We all know obesity is bad for the individual, but it isn’t solely a personal medical problem – it spills over into the workplace and has concrete economic costs," said Truls Ostbye, M.D., Ph.D., professor of community and family medicine.

The researchers looked at the records of 11,728 employees of Duke University who received health risk appraisals between 1997 and 2004 as well as the relationship between body mass index (BMI) and the rate of workers’ compensation claims.

The researchers found that workers with a BMI greater than 40 had 11.65 claims per 100 workers, compared with 5.8 claims per 100 in workers within the recommended range. For Americans, a BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 is considered normal; 25 to 29.9 is considered overweight and 30 and above is considered obese.

In terms of average lost days of work, the obese averaged 183.63 per 100 employees, compared with 14.19 per 100 for those in the recommended range. The average medical claims costs per 100 employees were $51,019 for the obese and $7,503 for the non-obese.

Healthy Eating Programs Recommended for Workplaces

“Given the strong link between obesity and workers' compensation costs, maintaining healthy weight is not only important to workers but should also be a high priority for employers," Ostbye said. "Work-based programs designed to target healthful eating and physical activity should be developed and then evaluated as part of a strategy to make all workplaces healthier and safer."

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.

“The primary message is that we need to reduce the burden on workers' compensation by intervening not only on individual risk factors such as obesity but also within the workplace to reduce the risk of injury,” said study co-author John Dement, Ph.D., professor of occupational and environmental medicine, who is the principal investigator for development of the workplace safety surveillance program at Duke. “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.”

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