Worker health and wellness Injury prevention Musculoskeletal disorders

Weighing down safety

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

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Weighing down safety 500

Encourage individual change

Jayme Mayo, certified physician assistant and wellness director for Nabholz Construction Services, said the United States’ obesity epidemic has impacted employees’ perceptions of weight at the company.

“People have reset what normal looks like,” she said. “When they see someone overweight they think that is normal, and when they see someone obese they think that is overweight. It is only when they see someone who is morbidly obese do they think that person should do something.”

Still, despite encouragement from the company, individual motivation is key to success, Mayo said. When speaking with employees or spouses, she focuses on helping them realize the importance of preventive care with annual exams and being a “smart consumer” with medications.

“I don’t think they realize the impact that [being obese] has or is going to have on their life,” she said. “I do not like the thought of someone being injured or sick or debilitated for something that did not have to happen.”

For Robinson, his desire to know his grandchildren motivated him to lose weight and keep it off. “I want to be a grandpa,” he said. “My grandfather died from a heart attack when I was 8 months old, and my dad died when my daughter was a year old. I used to be tired when I got home, and did not play with the kids. Now, I [live healthier] for the kids.”

Nabholz Construction Services: One company’s journey to a healthier and safer weight among its workforce

In 2007, Nabholz Construction Services – a Conway, AR-based commercial construction contracting company with more than 1,000 employees – launched a voluntary wellness program that focused on obesity and obesity-related conditions in an effort to stabilize increasing health care costs. About three-fourths of the workforce participated in the first companywide health screening. The results: 42 percent of workers had untreated high blood pressure, 46 percent had untreated high cholesterol and 42 workers had cases of undiagnosed or untreated diabetes.

These health conditions contributed to the high rates of obesity among workers at the time, said Jayme Mayo, certified physician assistant and wellness director for Nabholz. More than half the workers weighed more than 200 pounds, with 29 percent weighing more than 225 pounds and 16 percent more than 250 pounds.

“We realized the depth and breadth of the health issues that existed in our company,” Greg Williams, chief financial officer for Nabholz, said in “The Weight of the Nation,” a 2012 HBO documentary on obesity in the United States. “Are [workers] headed for a stroke or a heart attack? We are worried about them personally, but we are also worried about the impact the lack of wellness would have on our ability to function as a company.”

Obesity also was affecting employees’ ability to work safely and workers’ compensation costs. Mayo said that when looking at workers’ comp claims for back injuries, many of those workers tended to be obese.

The company also needed to purchase safety construction equipment that can accommodate workers who weigh up to 350 pounds, including hard hats that fit the severely obese.

Developing a new solution

Nabholz began its voluntary wellness program based on points and credits, but changed it in 2009 and 2010 to a results-based program that addresses five areas: tobacco use, obesity, blood pressure, blood glucose (sugar) and cholesterol. The company provides incentives for improvement in one or more of these areas.

The company also began taking other actions to encourage healthier behaviors. Lindsey Dixon, a full-time registered dietitian, was hired. Employees and spouses can use an onsite medical clinic or workout rooms. Each office and large jobsite has a blood pressure machine, tape measure and body fat monitor. Also, either Mayo or Dixon regularly visits offices and jobsites for wellness testing and to interact with workers about their health.“I think – what I realized – is that one of the best things I have ever given the employees and spouses is my time and attention,” Mayo said. She spends up to 60 minutes with an employee or spouse explaining various aspects of nutrition, such as questions to ask your doctor, how to read a food label and setting up a safe fitness routine.“Once you have a relationship, they are more comfortable asking and talking to me about more private and personal issues than cholesterol and blood pressure,” she said. “This is what has made the difference for us. It is not ‘because I said so’ or ‘because I told you so.’ You educate someone and it empowers them to be more proactive with their health and ultimately with their life.”

Chris Goldsby, executive vice president of operations for Nabholz’s Oklahoma City office, was inspired by Mayo’s approach, so he decided to sit down with his workers as well to discuss their health.

“We do not invade our employees’ privacy; we are seeking to help them understand where their health issues may be,” he said. “I talk about the intangible pieces they may not see.”

Goldsby recognizes his employees for losing weight and other wellness achievements by awarding a vacation day at the annual Christmas party, giving out plaques called “wellies” that represent their success or awarding an employee a spot on the wall of achievements.

Success as a company

Nabholz’s wellness efforts save the company more than $600,000 annually, according to the documentary. But the biggest cost savings are the prevention of heart attacks, cancer, strokes and other costly medical events, Mayo said.

Between 2007 and 2011, the rate of high blood pressure among employees participating in screenings decreased to 22 percent in 2011 from 40 percent in 2007. At the same time, employees have been shedding the pounds:

  • The number of workers weighing more than 200 pounds decreased about 11 percent.
  • The number of workers weighing more than 225 pounds decreased about 10 percent.
  • The number of workers weighing 250 pounds or more decreased about 6 percent.

– TJB

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