Promoting Healthy Hearts

By Sheridan, Peter J. | Occupational Hazards, April 1990 | Go to article overview

Promoting Healthy Hearts

Sheridan, Peter J., Occupational Hazards


In 1987, the American Heart Association (AHA) reports, nearly one million Americans died of heart and blood pressure diseases. One in four suffer from cardiovascular disease, and almost one in two die of it.

As grim as these statistics are, they represent an approximate 25 percent decline in heart-related deaths over the past decade, according to AHA.

In 1986, the cost of heart and blood vessel disease was estimated at $78.6 billion, with a substantial portion of that tab picked up by American employers, primarily in the form of health and life insurance premiums, disability insurance, and workers compensation claims.

What can employers do to cut those costs and protect the lives and welfare of their workers? They can operate a health promotion, or wellness, program with a prevent-heart-disease component. One such company taking that initiative is Tenneco Inc., a Houston-based producer of crude oil, natural gas, petroleum, and petrochemicals. The program has been in place since 1980. It's under the direction of Edward J. Bernacki, M.D., vice president - health, environmental medicine, and safety.


Enrollment in the purely voluntary program begins with a medical history and physical examination. Risk factors, including smoking, hypertension, high blood cholesterol levels, family medical history, and age are noted at this stage. At Houston headquarters, where some 4,000 are employed, approximately 70 percent of the workforce participates.

According to Dr. Bernacki, the glue that holds the program together is physical fitness. "Once you get them involved in physical fitness, all the rest falls into place," he said. Bernacki guesstimates that 55-60 percent of the workers who enroll in the physical fitness program, are, in his terms, "dedicated exercisers." It follows, according to Bernacki's logic, that they don't smoke and that they readily follow a balanced, healthful diet. In sum, then, they're strongly inclined to move to control the risks implicit in risk factors, and their lifestyles are in harmony with medical counsel regarding prevention of coronary heart disease.

The other 40-45 percent of Houston employees who participate in the program tend to move in and out of the physical fitness regimen, according to Bernacki, and their dietary restraint does also. "Results aren't perfect," he said, "but if you keep in mind that the current 70 percent participation figure used to be a paltry 10 percent, you realize considerable progress has been made."

Bernacki is even more cheered by the results of a survey he ran among Houston workers which revealed that in the period of 1980 to 1989, the number of smokers dropped from 35 percent to 12 percent. He adds that with infrequent, even rare exception, "those who stop smoking don't go back to it."

Star Quality

From time to time, Dr. Denton Cooley, renowned heart surgeon, makes a presentation at Tenneco on one or another facet of heart disease and its prevention. Employees are invited by company officials to attend these and other educational sessions treating of this subject. Bernacki regards such sessions as indispensable, but notwithstanding, he made this observation: "Even to hear Dr. Cooley, we get a turnout of only around 80 people, and yet on that same day, some 600 of our employees are exercising."

When we raised the specter of newly converted physical fitness enthusiasts who fail to condition gradually, Bernacki acknowledged the problem, but he said there's evidence that Tenneco has not been troubled by it. He has analyzed injuries of exercisers and nonexercisers and found their injury rates roughly equal.

Convenience is the name of the game for employees who want a blood pressure check or cholesterol screening. Nurses stand by at or near the plant cafeteria's entrance during the lunch hour to perform those services. …

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