Fat Workers and On-the-Job Injuries


A new study by researchers at Duke University finds that fat people are more prone to workplace injuries than their svelte co-workers. The researchers divided nearly 12,000 employees of Duke and its health care system into five groups based on body-mass index (weight in kilograms divided by height in meters squared). The fatter the employees were, the more workers' compensation claims they filed, the more the claims cost, and the more days of work they missed. The employees in the highest BMI group (40 or more) filed workers' compensation claims twice as often as the employees in the "recommended weight" group (with BMIs from 18.5 to 24.9); the medical costs for their claims were nearly seven times as high; and they missed 13 times as many workdays. The ratios for the merely "overweight" (with BMIs from 25 to 29.9) were less dramatic: 1.2, 1.8, and 4.2, respectively.

While the associations between BMI and some chronic diseases may be largely due to the poor diet and inadequate exercise that tend to accompany obesity rather than excess weight per se, it seems plausible that extra pounds would make mishaps more likely and injuries more severe. According to the study, "The claims most strongly affected by BMI were related to the following: lower extremity, wrist or hand, and back (body part affected); pain or inflammation, sprain or strain, and contusion or bruise (nature of the illness or injury); and falls or slips, lifting, and exertion (cause of the illness or injury)." An obesity-related lack of agility may contribute to accidents, while the strain that extra weight puts on joints and muscles could make certain types of injuries more likely and more serious.

The researchers think the connection between obesity and workplace injuries bolsters the case for employer-sponsored fitness programs. The A.P. story about the study prominently features an employment attorney's warning that "employers need to be careful not to view this study as a green light to treat obese or overweight workers differently." Michael Siegel sees a double standard:

You don't hear anyone suggesting that to save health care and workers compensation money, employers fire fat people or stop hiring them in the first place. It simply isn't part of the discourse. The suggestion simply does not arise. No public health groups are suggesting—or would suggest—anything of the sort. The response (and an appropriate one) is to recommend fitness or other programs to help employees control their weight.

Not so with an almost identical problem—off-the-job employee smoking. That problem is also costing employers money in terms of health care costs. However, in contrast to the obesity and overweight problem, many anti-smoking groups are supporting the idea of firing smokers or refusing to hire smokers in order for employers to save money.

While Siegel may be right that no one is explicitly recommending that employers avoid hiring fat people, I'm sure obesity often hurts job applicants' prospects, whether for aesthetic reasons or because it's seen as a mark of poor self-discipline or other undesirable traits. (Here's a summary of the research on weight-based employment discrimination.) Are data-based concerns that fat people will cost more to employ a less objectionable reason for turning them away? Is this worse than refusing to hire smokers?

[via The Rest of the Story]