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Numbers Don't Bode Well for Blue-Collar Health

With a new report showing blue-collar workers are more prone to illness than other groups, experts say HR's challenge is to understand the unique aspects of their own workforces' well-being as well as the unique things they're going to have to do as an employer to address its workers' needs.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012
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Results of a recent survey -- showing blue-collar workers are more prone to ill health -- are hardly surprising, experts say, but a higher preponderance of health problems among this sector is a concern, nonetheless, that demands attention.

The survey, released in July by Gallup in its 2011 Well-Being Index, finds blue-collar workers topped the charts last year in terms of various health problems. The research by Gallup and wellness company Healthways finds about 37 percent of transportation workers and 31 percent of manufacturing and production employees were obese, and about 32 percent of transportation employees had high blood pressure.

In addition, smoking was prevalent among 33 percent in mining and construction and 29 percent in installation and repair work. On average, blue-collar workers were more than 6 percentage points above the national smoking rate.

As Erika Sward, director of national advocacy for the American Lung Association, said in a recent USA Today story about the research that she was not surprised that labor-intensive jobs topped the list for highest rates of smoking.

Those with less education are most likely to pick up smoking -- and also least likely to have access to the most effective treatments for quitting.

"Every state must include a comprehensive quit-smoking benefit," she said, "so that those who are most likely to smoke and least likely to be able to get the help they need will have that opportunity."

The key for the types of organizations that hire blue-collar workers, Carter Coberley, director of health research and outcomes at Healthways, said in the USA Today story, "is [in] understanding the unique aspects of their own workforces' well-being and then the unique things they're going to have to do as an employer to address the needs of the population."

This could even come down to something as simple as solving a logistical problem, says LuAnn Heinen, vice president of the Washington-based National Business Group on Health. Many manufacturing firms have strict closing times, "so when the gates lock at 6 p.m. or something, how are you going to create off-hours opportunities for physical activities and counseling?"

"It's one thing to create a wellness program for everyone who has computers, access to a gym, access to better dining, etc. etc.," she says. "It's quite another to [try and make wellness work] in the other sectors and sections of the workforce -- the truckers on the road, the callers sitting all day at call centers."

Though the survey results are in keeping with what the NBGH has found among its members -- primarily large employers (13 percent in manufacturing smoking, compared to 8 percent overall; 20 percent of manufacturing/blue-collar workers at healthy weights, compared to 37 percent overall), Heinen sees some signs of hope that a focus on overall corporate health can one day reach this sector.

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In a series of benchmarking calls the NBGH conducted recently with employers of blue-collar workers within its membership -- in an effort to determine reasons for their low health and wellness scores -- the problem of inadequate computer access reared its head, so employers agreed to create and install kiosks for communicating and monitoring wellness-program specifics.

Heinen knows of some companies that have created campus settings for smoking-cessation programs, with the support of the union. She knows of unions supporting the idea of stopping assembly lines occasionally to improve access to exercise or other healthcare benefits.

"We actually have had blue-collar workers at [member] plants speaking out for better health, asking, 'How come we can't have access to that?' " she says. "In one case, we heard from one company's truck drivers, saying, 'You do so much for corporate headquarters [in terms of wellness efforts]; why not us?' "

That company responded by giving its drivers better access to good food. Every truck cab was installed with a mini-refrigerator, so fresh fruits and vegetables could be kept on hand and consumed during the long road trips.

"Still," says Heinen, "there's a pretty small minority of blue-collar manufacturers whose CEOs and other top leaders really get this wisdom [behind wellness efforts].

"Until it's established as a win-win, from the top down, it's not going to be seen and bought in to as a win-win," she adds.

"Once that foundation has been laid, there really can be as much success in manufacturing and other blue-collar industries as any others."

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