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Obesity Study Uncovers Risks for Low-Wage Workers

Experts Collaborate to Improve Health

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A forum of health specialists met to discuss the results of a new report on obesity and low-wage workers.

By Karen Angelo

A new study flips on its head how we look at obesity health risks: rather than focusing on sedentary lifestyles, the study looks at low-wage workers toiling in heavy labor and how their work conditions contribute to weight gain and obesity. 

University of Massachusetts Lowell researchers, in partnership with Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH), and the Boston Workers Alliance, released findings from the study, “Obesity/Overweight and the Role of Working Conditions,” at a forum of obesity program specialists in November 2012. 

It is widely recognized that overweight and obesity disproportionately affect lower-income individuals. However, most studies examine office work and other seated jobs where weight reduction suggestions such as taking the stairs and walking to work might apply. These researchers found that housekeepers, janitors and other blue-collar workers who rarely sit during the day have neither the time nor the energy to benefit from these traditional recommendations. 

“It first dawned on us that this issue of low-wage workers and weight needed to be looked at when we were approached by a hotel housekeeper,” says Mirna Montano, a trainer at MassCOSH, a workplace safety organization and study co-author. “Like many of her coworkers, Maria’s arms, legs and shoulders ached from cleaning 30 rooms in an eight-hour shift. Yet despite laboring on her feet all day, Maria complained that her weight had ballooned as her workload increased.” 

Realizing that the issues facing Maria and other low-wage workers were not being discussed by policymakers or by the public, MassCOSH, UMass Lowell’s Center for the Promotion of Health in the New England Workplace (CPH NEW), an academic research center focused on occupational safety and wellness, and Boston Workers’ Alliance, an African-American-based community group, joined forces to investigate further. 

Eighty-seven low-wage workers from Boston, Lawrence and Lynn contributed to the study through focus groups, in-depth interviews and stakeholder meetings. Though their occupations differed – from janitorial to human service to construction – their experiences were surprisingly similar. Some of the studies findings include:

  • Having a physically demanding job often resulted in illnesses or injuries, influencing their ability to participate in physical activity outside of the job.
  • Experiences of high demands in the workplace led some workers to feel stressed and consume more high-calorie foods, such as candy and soda
  • Many workers reported having inadequate time to eat during their working hours, making it difficult to eat healthy food.
  • Many workplaces don’t provide workers with the appropriate amount of equipment and space to eat meals, which influences workers’ diet. 

“The exhaustion and injuries, time pressure, stress and lack of access to healthy food – sometimes even access to a place to eat – were problems that most of the workers felt had a big impact on their weight,” said Suezanne Bruce, chairwoman of the Boston Workers’ Alliance Board of Directors and a co-author of the study.

The researchers offer practical suggestions to employers such as allowing sufficient time for breaks and meals, communicating rest and meal break times to reduce anxiety about hunger, providing clean space for eating with functional equipment, and determining physical workloads that avoid excessive fatigue and risk of injury. They also propose that insurance companies consider establishing rate reduction programs for employers that improve work health and safety, including environment conditions that affect obesity. 

“This report shows what an important impact the conditions of a person’s workplace can have on their health,” said Assoc. Prof. Nicole Champagne of the UMass Lowell department of Community Health and Sustainability, who co-authored the study. “When we only look at individual behaviors, such as diet and exercise habits, as a way to improve health, we are missing a big piece of the puzzle.”