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New court decisions/resources

Dealing with the obesity epidemic

Recent court rulings in Indiana and Oregon have employers worried. The courts have ruled that an employer must pay for an obese employee's weight-loss surgery to ensure the success of another operation for an injury suffered at work. In the Indiana case, the employer argued that the employee was obese before he was hurt. Yet, the court held that the weight and the accident had combined to create a single injury and the employer had to cover the weight-loss surgery.

Experts say the Indiana case reflects general rules of Workers’ Compensation, not just state law, and could have implications for future cases.

There is little doubt that obesity places a heavy burden on employers. According to the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI), claims involving obesity have “markedly higher” indemnity and medical costs. For claims that last one-year, obese claims are 2.8 times more expensive than non-obese claims, but this cost differential climbs to 4.5 times at the three-year maturity and 5.3 times at the five-year maturity. Obesity can impact mortality rates, reduce productivity and increase the rate of impaired activity associated with type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and hypertension.

By the year 2020, 40% of men and 43% of women are predicted to be obese, with more than 70% of men and women predicted to be overweight. Recognizing the soaring medical costs associated with obesity, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stepped up its efforts to combat the problem.

They have launched a new website, CDC's LEAN Works! A Workplace Obesity Prevention Program. This free web-based resource offers interactive tools and evidence-based resources to design effective worksite obesity prevention and control programs, including an obesity cost calculator to estimate how much obesity is costing your company and how much savings your company could reap with different workplace interventions.

Employers are paying for obesity in many ways - Workers’ Comp claims, higher health care costs, low productivity and absenteeism. In addition, PPE capacities need to be carefully monitored to ensure that workers are not placed at risk. For example, many standards require a capacity of up to 310 pounds for personal fall arrest systems; however, this may not be enough. Some equipment manufacturers now offer products certified to 400 pounds or greater. And it’s not fall systems alone that have weight restrictions – ladders, bucket trucks, aerial lifts, etc. all have weight limits. Knowing the weight rating, as well as the total weight – employee(s) and equipment – that it needs to support is critical.

To combat the consequences of obesity employers must be proactive and establish a healthy weight culture. According to Jerome Congleton, a professor at Texas A & M’s School of Rural Public Health, changing workstations to encourage more standing can help. By standing an additional two hours a day, a worker can burn 280 calories more per day and lose 20 pounds a year.

Changing food choice options in the cafeteria, health screenings, obesity prevention and control programs and incentives can help employees become more active and make better food choices. Equally important, management must set the example by its actions in leading a healthy lifestyle.