Magazine article Risk Management

Obesity's Impact Workers Compensation

Magazine article Risk Management

Obesity's Impact Workers Compensation

Article excerpt

Obesity is on the rise in the United States. An estimated 37% of Americans are now obese and this number is expected climb to 50% by 2030, according to the National Heart Forum.

Although obesity is generally classified by a person's body mass index (BMI), obese individuals are roughly 30 pounds or more above a healthy weight, and this can have dire health consequences. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that obesity increases an individual's risk for diabetes, osteoarthritis, heart disease, stroke and various types of cancer.

As a result, obesity has been a leading driver of healthcare costs. Related medical expenses were estimated at $147 billion in 2008 and could reach $344 billion by 2018, accounting for 21% of U.S. healthcare spending. The cost to businesses exceeds $13 billion a year, as obesity leads to a less productive workforce, with those who suffer from obesity-related health conditions missing more work (absenteeism) and potentially losing focus while on the job (presenteeism).


Obese workers generally experience more injuries and more expensive claims due to a host of health conditions. Studies show that obesity is already having a profound impact on workers compensation, including:

i. Increased frequency of injury. In 2007, Duke University performed a landmark study, "Obesity Increases Workers Compensation Costs." Researchers found that, on average, obese workers filed twice as many workers compensation claims as their non-obese counterparts.

2. Higher incidence of comorbidities. As previously noted, obesity increases the risk of comorbid conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, which can create medical complications. For example, if an obese injured worker has diabetes, the healing process may be hindered, slowing recovery and return-to-work.

3. Increased severity. Obese workers often experience injuries that are more severe because extra weight generates increased force during an accident. If an obese worker experiences a slip and fall, for example, there may be significantly more impact and, thus, damage to the back or vulnerable joints like wrists, ankles and knees. Further, obese individuals may already suffer from orthopedic problems and osteoarthritis.

4. Increased medical costs. The Duke study found that claims filed by obese employees cost seven times more than similar claims from non-obese workers.

5. Higher indemnity costs. In addition, weight-challenged claimants miss 13 times more days of work than claimants with a normal BMI. In a 2010 study, the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) found that the duration of indemnity benefits paid is at least five times greater.

6. Greater risk of disability. The 2010 NCCI study also found that obese workers were more likely to become permanently disabled.

7. Additional complications. There are myriad additional risks and complications. For example, obese individuals have an increased incidence of depression and other mental health issues, which can make them more susceptible to opioid abuse. Or, if they undergo surgery, there is a high danger of complications, such as blood clots. Medical and workers compensation professionals must be watchful for these risks and work to mitigate them.


Recently, additional issues have come to light to further complicate this complex medical challenge. Workers comp professionals must be aware of these factors and begin to formulate proactive strategies to deal with them.

In June 2013, the American Medical Association (AMA) House of Delegates approved a resolution reclassifying obesity as a "disease state." This essentially means that one in every three Americans (78 million adults and 12 million children) suffer from a medical condition that requires treatment and interventions. Workers compensation costs could rise significantly as a result.

The AMA reclassification may mean that more physicians will begin to look at and treat obesity as part of a workers compensation injury, arguing that it is required for a more successful chance of recovery. …

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