We all know when we’ve gained weight without ever going near a scale. Our clothes feel tighter and less comfortable. Many of us ignore the signs and simply buy the next size up. Widespread denial may have contributed to the rampant obesity in our nation, which has led to higher healthcare costs, higher rates of absenteeism, and an increase in the number of weight-related injuries on the job.

Many health risks are associated with being overweight. These risks include heart attack and heart disease, hypertension, stroke, cancer, musculoskeletal injuries both at home and at work, Type 2 diabetes, and sleep apnea. The World Health Organization states that obesity is the leading preventable cause of death worldwide.

Body mass index (BMI), which factors in weight and height, is one of the most common methods used to determine someone’s risk of being overweight. There are BMI calculators and charts online, and they are simple to use. BMIs fall into four categories:

• 18.5 or lower—underweight

• 18.5–24.9—normal or ideal weight

• 25–29.9—overweight

• 30 or higher—obese

A study performed on employee obesity by Tom Gilliam, Ph.D., indicates troubling trends. He looked at the BMI of individuals applying for employment. In 2000, he found that 30 percent of the applicants were obese. In 2005, the number of obese new hires was 38 percent. In 2010, 45 percent of new employees were obese.

These disturbing statistics will have a far-reaching effect on employers in every sector. In 2005, the Wall Street Journal estimated that an obese employee will cost its employer about $1,500 more in health services each year than an employee with a healthy body weight. The cost was expected to rise to $2,500 by 2010. Add the cost of employees’ lower productivity due to fatigue and discomfort, and the overweight employee can be costly for employers. Furthermore, obese employees in construction run the risk of exceeding the OSHA weight limit of stepladders and scaffolds as well as the recommended limits for fall protection or aerial lifts.

As with all safety-related issues, obesity in our employees can have a moral component as well as financial. Knowing some of your employees are obese and are at higher risk for various health issues and injury on the job, you should do all you can to try to help them remedy this issue. In the long run, they will lead a healthier, happier, more productive life.

When enacting a program to help employees lose weight, you must keep in mind that it takes time—sometimes a long time—to turn obesity around. No one has ever gained 5 lbs., much less 20 or 30 lbs., overnight, so it’s illogical to think that the weight will be lost quickly. Most studies of weight loss show that crash diets don’t work. Like a thermostat, the body has a set point that keeps body weight fairly constant, whether it’s too heavy, too thin or just right. A crash diet will allow for weight loss, but once the dieter goes off the diet, the body works to return to the set point, thus regaining any lost weight.

Losing weight slowly, by making small changes in the diet and exercise regime, proves more effective. For example, if you drink four sodas per day, cut intake back to two or three, replacing the others with water. That small concession will cut out about 350 calories each day. It doesn’t sound like much, but over the course of one year, it can lead to a weight loss of about 16 pounds without a lot of pain. Other strategies include decreasing the amount of sugar in your morning coffee, getting the smaller size bag of chips with lunch or walking for 10 minutes during your lunch break.

The following are some tips to help your employees lose weight:

• Remember that weight loss takes time. People must do it slowly in order to lose weight and keep it off.

• Teach employees nutrition and weight loss basics. A well-balanced, tasty diet with some exercise each day will be effective in getting rid of unwanted pounds.

• Link employee weight loss to their overall family health. Individuals may not mind being a bit heavy, but no one wants their children to be obese. If you work to include the employee’s family into the program, you’ll be helping the employee and his or her family. It may be easier for a whole family to change their eating habits than just one member.

Weight loss programs, like any other safety measure, must engage top management. This should include financial support of the program and the time for it. It also wouldn’t hurt if managers or supervisors participated as well.


KELLY is a safety and health specialist with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. She can be reached at 800.745.4818 and dkelly@intecweb.com. Joe O’Connor edited this article.