Obesity and Workers’ Comp Costs

By Mary Anne Hawrylak | January 14, 2013

Health care reform has been at the top of the political agenda through the past two presidential elections, and with it has come greater awareness of the need for wellness and prevention to counter growing medical problems such as obesity. This need extends to the workplace, where employees with pre-existing health conditions drive up workers’ compensation costs.

Simply put, workers with certain health conditions, called “co-morbidities,” are more likely to hurt themselves on the job, require more time and money to treat and heal, and take more time to get back to work.


Leading the way is obesity, a health problem that has drawn national attention in recent years but not showing signs of slowing. In fact, a recent Duke University/RTI International/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study estimates 42 percent of U.S. adults will become obese by 2030.

Workers with ‘co-morbidities’ are more likely to hurt themselves on the job.

Obesity increases the healing times of fractures, strains and sprains, and complicates surgery. According to another Duke University study that looked at the records of 11,728 employees as part of a risk reduction initiative:

  • Obese workers filed twice as many comp claims.
  • Obese workers had seven times higher medical costs.
  • Obese workers lost 13 times more days of work.
  • Body parts most prone to injury for obese individuals included lower extremities, wrists or hands, and the back. Most common injuries were slips and falls, and lifting.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said the costs to U.S. businesses related to obesity exceed a shocking $13 billion each year.

Diabetes and smoking are right behind an expanding waistline in their impact on workers’ comp claims. Diabetes is directly correlated with obesity and affects the wound-healing process. Smoking, in addition to all of its well-publicized health risks, also affects surgery to repair fractures. A smoker’s bones take longer to knit, and there is a higher risk of re-fracture. In fact, there is a growing trend for physicians to delay or avoid surgery on a heavy smoker because of potential complications.

Wellness Programs

It behooves employers to look carefully at their employee population and offer wellness programs as part of an overall benefit package. Medical costs are rising, a hard truth that cannot be changed. But what we can change is why the employee population is getting hurt, how badly employees get hurt and the length of time it takes to recover. That’s why case management firms are increasingly becoming part of the workers’ compensation risk management team.

The key is to reach an employee population early because once the proverbial horse is out of barn, it’s more difficult to control. When the health of the employee population and its impact on comp claim costs are understood, the situation can be handled in a preventative way. You have to dig deeper when you want to impact cost.

These issues may not have seemed as imperative in the past several years, but with a rise in both workers’ comp rates, increasing non-renewals and tightening capacity, it’s time for agents, brokers and other insurance partners to discuss obesity and other wellness issues with their clients – and help these employers find solutions to improve worker health and control medical and workers’ comp costs.

Topics USA Workers' Compensation

About Mary Anne Hawrylak

Hawrylak is president of The Kingstree Group Inc., a case management firm serving self-funded workers' compensation programs. Email: mahawrylak@kingstree.net. Phone: 610-254-9050. Website: www.kingstree.net.

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Insurance Journal West January 14, 2013
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