Workplace injuries and illnesses can present a huge problem for both employers and employees. Not only can these job site incidents pose a significant cost for companies, but they often result in missed work days — and therefore, missed wages — for employees. In 2013, there were 917,100 occupational injuries and illnesses that culminated in missed days of work. Businesses are required to uphold certain safety standards to reduce the risk of workplace injuries — and these measures often do their job — but recent studies have shown that workers also play a part in reducing their risk of injury.
Research is now suggesting that obese and overweight individuals are not only at risk for chronic health conditions like heart disease and other conditions, but they also have a higher risk of sustaining workplace injuries that result in missing work days.
Although the legitimacy of the body mass index (BMI) has been called into question by some sources in recent years, it’s still the most commonly used tool to determine obesity range. An individual’s BMI is determined by dividing that person’s weight (in kilograms) by their height, squared (in meters). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that a BMI below 18.5 is underweight, a range of 18.5 to 24.9 is within normal parameters, the 25 to 29.9 range indicates the subject is overweight, and a BMI over 30 is considered to be obese.
High BMIs — generally accepted as 25 to 30 — have been connected with other poor health conditions like high cholesterol, osteoporosis, and sleep apnea. Sleep apnea prevents an especially significant health risk to those with high BMIs, as approximately one out of every 50 individuals with the condition goes undiagnosed. Other health concerns include mental conditions like anxiety and depression.
But now high BMIs have also been linked to an increased risk for traumatic injury in the workplace. A recent study out of Johns Hopkins found that 85% of workers at eight different aluminum manufacturing plants were overweight or obese. Of the 7,690 workers who participated in the study, 34% had BMIs over 40. 29% of those “most obese” workers sustained an injury during the study, and 92% of all injuries suffered during the study period were sustained by overweight or obsese workers.
Other studies have also shown that high-risk jobs like nursing and firefighting had distinct correlations between BMI rates and injury risks. Nurses with the highest BMIs were shown to have twice the number of injury claims of nurses who had normal-range BMIs, and firefighters with higher BMIs were reported to have higher rates of lost work-time injuries than firefighters whose BMIs were lower.
Between 2004 and 2012, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health looked at work-related injuries from 1,120 workers. The most common injuries were found in the back, the knees, and the fingers, and common types included sprains, strains, twists, cuts, and fractures. NIOSH found that overweight and obese employees were 25% – 68% more likely to sustain these injuries than workers who were of a normal weight.
Although it is unfair to definitively determine causation from these statistics, it is fair to say that America’s obesity epidemic has one more reason to cause concern. Employers should not discriminate on a basis of weight or BMI. Even so, NIOSH has recommended that employers implement programs for weight management and reduction, especially for overweight and obese employees. Although weight reduction could possibly help reduce workplace injuries, this might cross a line for many industries and workers. It’s entirely possible that these noted correlations could be attributed to other causes, and many employers and workers would find such tactics inappropriate, if weight generally has no bearing upon job performance and ability. Instead of mandating weight loss, employers should ensure proper education and safety training as a key component in protecting employees from injury.