Study links obesity to higher worker’s compensations costs, UT seeks to promote healthier campus

Annie L. Zhang

Edward Bernacki, professor of medicine and executive director for Dell Medical School’s Healthcare Solutions, and his colleagues recently published a study that linked obese and overweight workers to higher workers’ compensation claims for major injuries. 

The study, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, analyzes workers’ insurance claims and proposes a model for predicting recovery time after an accident.

“We’ve been doing these studies with large insurance companies in Louisiana for going on twelve years,” Bernacki said. “[In this] particular study, we [were] interested to see if there was a relationship between weight and accidents.”

The results showed that in claims for major injuries, workers with a body mass index, between 18 and 25, considered normal, incurred average compensation costs of about $180,000. Costs for workers with an index over 30, considered obese, were about $470,000 — more than double those of the 18-25 group.

“Weight is a factor in accident frequencies, [particularly] for those who were obese, who had BMIs over 30,” Bernacki said. “Heavier individuals had more accidents and it took them longer to get back to work.”

Bernacki said this information can help insurers give the proper resources to aid injured workers.

“The [goal] is to come up with a predictive model so that when somebody gets injured, we can [determine] the ultimate time it will take them to come back to work,” Bernacki said. “[We] give that information to the insurance companies so that they’ll work harder to try to get these individuals back to work earlier.”

Although the study is limited to one company, Bernacki said that the results are applicable elsewhere. 

“The magnitude may be different in different states, but the direction is the same,” Bernacki said. 

In Texas, over 68 percent of all adults are either obese or overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

UT is instituting programs to promote healthier lifestyles among University employees. Many of these programs are directed by the Wellness Network, UT’s healthy-campus coalition that seeks to address a variety of health and wellness needs. 

“The Wellness Network is a [group of] faculty, staff and students from all over campus who are working together to create a healthier UT,” said Susan Hochman, assistant director of the University Health Services and member of the Wellness Network Executive Board.

Claire Hahn, another member of the Wellness Network Executive Board, oversees the health and wellness programs for UT faculty and staff. 

“We try to take a holistic approach, and we definitely have several programs that address maintaining healthy weight,” Hahn said. “Some of those are nutrition-focused, while others are focused on physical activity.”

One program offered by UT for faculty is Naturally Slim, an online ten-week weight-loss program. Hahn said that over a thousand faculty and staff members have joined this semester, and participants have lost on average nine pounds over the course of the program. 

In designing these programs, the Wellness Network considers several different factors.

“We try to look at the data we have available on a national level but then drill down to our specific population,” Hahn said. “We have some claims data, and we also offer confidential on-site screenings that gives us an aggregate report for BMIs, cholesterol and blood pressure.”

Hahn said that in addition to this information, the Wellness Network studies the effectiveness of programs at other schools and work sites and consults experts on campus.

“Happiness and healthiness in employees is important for so many reasons,” Hahn said. “Happier and healthier employees will serve our students better, they’ll be better at their jobs and they’ll want to [stay at] their jobs, which in turn makes the University a better place.”