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MassCOSH's landmark obesity study uncovers risks for low-wage workers

Today, MassCOSH, in partnership with UMass Lowell and the Boston Workers Alliance, released a new study that flips on its head how we look at obesity health risks in front of a packed room of leading community, municipal, state and federal obesity program specialists.

Rather than focusing on sedentary lifestyles, the study, "Obesity/Overweight and the role of Working Conditions," looks at low-wage workers toiling in heavy labor and how their work conditions contribute to weight gain and obesity.

Ana Montesinos, research participant and outreach worker, addresses the crowdIt is widely recognized that being overweight or obese 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,” said 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 the issues facing Maria and other low-wage workers were not being discussed by policymakers or in the press, 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, Latino and black or African-American 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 services to construction – their experiences were surprisingly similar. Some of the study’s surprising findings include:

 

  • Having a physically demanding job often resulted in illnesses and/or injuries, influencing workers’ ability to participate in physical activity outside of the job.

 

As one participant noted, “I used to work most of the time on my knees… I had to leave that job to start a treatment… After two years of treatment, I gained 70 pounds. They told me it was because of the medicines… I think I gained weight because of two things: the medicine and because after I stopped working, I ate a lot more and I didn’t go on walks…”

 

  • Experiences of high demands in the workplace led some workers to feel stressed and consume more high-calorie foods, such as candy and soda.

 

According to a research participant, “The work that three people used to do is given to one person. That creates more stress and eating more.”

 

  • Many workers reported having inadequate time to eat during their working hours, making it difficult to eat healthy food.

 

As one research participant described, “We had too much work so we didn’t have time for lunch. I needed the job…sometimes I worked 10 or 12 hours…when I got home I ate fast food.”

 

  • Many workplaces are inadequate in providing workers with the appropriate amount of equipment and space to eat meals, influencing workers’ diet.

 

Said one research participant, “I cannot even talk about the cafeteria because that ‘cafeteria’ is in the corner of a dirty and unsanitary room.”

“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, chairman of the Boston Workers’ Alliance Board of Directors and a co-author.

The researchers offer recommendations to employers and government and policymakers, emphasizing the need to address working conditions as part of workplace obesity or “wellness” programs. They also 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 Associate Prof. Nicole Champagne of UMass Lowell’s Department of Community Health and Sustainability, who co-authored the study. “When we are only looking at individual behaviors, such as diet and exercise habits as a way to improve health, we are missing a big piece of the puzzle.”

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