Worker health and wellness Injury prevention Musculoskeletal disorders

Weighing down safety

Small workplace changes can make a big difference in combating worker obesity

Weighing down safety


  • At its current rate, obesity among employees will cost U.S. workplaces up to $580 billion in lost productivity and nearly $210 billion in medical costs every year by 2030.
  • Some experts say the workplace presents employees with a "toxic environment" in which it is too easy to consume calories and too difficult to burn them.
  • Simple, inexpensive workplace changes such as encouraging walking and introducing healthier food options can reduce workers' body weight and help prevent future weight gain.
  • Wayne Robinson used to feel nervous entering a confined space at the construction site where he worked. At 245 pounds, he was concerned he was too heavy to be rescued in the event of an emergency. He also worried about his crew, some of whom were too big to fit into the confined space.

    Now 190 pounds, Robinson, building supervisor for Conway, AR-based Nabholz Construction Services, said he feels much safer at work. His safety equipment fits better and he is more flexible, making performing physical tasks more fluid. Mentally, he feels much more aware of his surroundings – and his safety – than when he was 55 pounds heavier.

    “Part of having a good, sound mind and being safe is being healthy,” said Chris Goldsby, executive vice president of operations for Nabholz’s Oklahoma City office. Goldsby also has noticed the link between weight and safety among workers. “That is eating properly, getting the nutrients we need, getting the rest we need, and I think exercise is a part of that as well. The more out of shape you are, the more likely you are to get hurt because you are not going to be doing things correctly.”

    Currently, more than 35 percent of U.S. adults are obese – defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as having a body mass index of 30 or greater. A September 2012 report from Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation stated that, at its current rate, obesity among employees will cost U.S. workplaces up to $580 billion in lost productivity and nearly $210 billion in medical costs every year by 2030. Depending on the state, this would result in a 1.9 to 34.5 percent increase in health care costs for obesity-related health problems.

    Who’s responsible?

    Beyond the increased costs associated with providing health care to obese workers, recent studies have linked obesity and severe obesity – defined as having a BMI of 40 or greater – with more frequent and costly injuries. A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine (Vol. 167, No. 8) determined that the cost of injuries suffered by obese and severely obese workers is nearly double that of normal-weight workers, and severely obese workers have nearly twice as many workers’ compensation claims as normal-weight workers. A literature review published in Injury Prevention (Vol. 13, No. 1) listed multiple studies linking increased risk of injury to obese workers. An excess of body fat can potentially increase an employee’s risk of injury by reducing the availability of properly fitting personal protective equipment, increasing the risk of musculoskeletal injury and limiting workers’ cognitive decision-making and judgment abilities. (See diagram for more information about the potential impact of obesity and severe obesity on workers.)

    “Obesity in the workplace has a big impact on the workers themselves and their health,” said Susan Yanovski, co-director of the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Obesity Research. “It also has an impact on the company, as people who have obesity have more health problems and health care costs. You are also going to see more absenteeism and presenteeism. So, it is in everyone’s best interest to help employees achieve and maintain a healthier body weight.”

    Yanovski served as a producer and expert for “The Weight of the Nation,” an HBO documentary on the factors contributing most to the rising rates of obesity in the United States. The documentary asserts that U.S. employees live and work in a “toxic environment” where it is too easy to ingest calories and too difficult to burn them off. Among the factors discussed were longer commutes and increasingly longer and more stressful workdays, which increase the body’s release of hormones that turn calories into fat more quickly.

    “[Personal responsibility] has to be part of the equation,” said Lisa Walvoord, vice president of policy for Denver-based LiveWell Colorado, an organization that advocates for healthier and fitter citizens and communities. “But if you are being told that you need to eat healthier and get more physical activity in your day, and you are working in a worksite that does not support that, and you are spending the largest portion of your waking hours at work? It is going to be really hard for you to achieve your goals and change your personal behavior.”

    Workplace interventions

    Employers can take simple actions to address obesity among workers at its root causes, Yanovski said. Organizations with high rates of overweight or obese workers can adopt individual interventions such as purchasing commercial weight-loss programs for workers, establishing onsite support groups, and offering gym membership fee waivers or prizes for losing weight. Workplace environment changes include adjusting the physical space of a workplace to encourage physical activity and healthier food options.

    “Not everything needs to be something expensive or difficult to implement,” she said.

    LiveWell Colorado provides the following tips to help increase healthy behaviors among workers:

    • Encourage workers to drink water instead of sugary beverages.
    • Promote physical activity and moving around during the day.
    • Make healthy food options available to employees and encourage them to make healthy choices.
    • Incorporate stretch breaks into meeting agendas.
    • Replace candy bowls with fresh fruit bowls at the front desk.
    • Institute walking meetings when applicable.

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