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Worksite Wellness Program helps employers curb tobacco use, reduce costs and boost productivity

November 16, 2016
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We all know smoking’s bad for your health, but Pinnacol Assurance sees tobacco use as a significant workers’ compensation issue, too. The editors of The Pinnacol Blog sat down with Segue Consulting’s Claire Brockbank, a nationally renowned health care consultant who helped Pinnacol launch its Worksite Wellness Program for policyholders, to discuss the impact of tobacco use on employers and helpful resources that can rein in the business costs of this health problem.

TPB: Claire, thanks for sitting down with us. Tell us about your work in tobacco cessation?

Brockbank: My work in tobacco cessation dates back to years of consulting to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). I became the CDC’s primary expert on how the private sector meets the challenge of tobacco use. In 2010, I helped Pinnacol pilot a four-year study with select policyholders, offering worksite wellness and researching risks and behaviors around smoking, obesity, safety and other health factors.

Based on positive response to the pilot and insights from the data, in 2015 I helped Pinnacol offer its Worksite Wellness Program to all Colorado policyholders, free of charge – a value-add as part of their Pinnacol workers’ compensation premium.

TPB: Remind us of the business costs to employers of tobacco use.

Brockbank: Each year, smoking deaths cost businesses $156.6 billion nationwide. Employees who use tobacco are more expensive to insure, and they miss work more often due to sickness. When they’re on the job, they’re often less productive. Take an average 15-minute smoking break and multiply it; you’ll find that workers who use tobacco essentially vacation an additional three weeks a year. The health care, productivity and human costs are sobering and well-documented.

TPB: What about e-cigarettes and vaping? Isn’t this safer?

Brockbank: Partly yes, mostly no. E-cigs are safer because you’re not inhaling smoke, so you reduce the chance of lung cancer and certain other illnesses. However, e-cigs carry major health risks.

They turn chemicals, including nicotine, into an aerosol that you inhale. The nicotine you inhale is highly toxic. In 2014, there were more than 3,000 calls to U.S. poison control centers for liquid nicotine exposure. Another concern is that nine chemicals in e-cig aerosols are known carcinogens and reproductive toxins.

TPB: How’s tobacco use a workers’ compensation issue?

Brockbank: For starters, smoking is a fire hazard, jeopardizing the safety of all employees. Second, injured employees who use tobacco experience greater difficulty – and costs – recovering and returning to work.

Tobacco’s harmful chemicals increase the odds that an injured worker’s bones and tissue may not heal well, the wounded area may become infected or the individual may suffer more pain following surgery than before. Research shows smokers have from two to 10 times the risk of ongoing wound or healing problems after surgery. Tobacco use impedes the flow of oxygen, which is essential to healing an injured area. Plus, chemicals in cigarette smoke limit the activity of infection-fighting cells called neutrophils. In sum, tobacco use slows recovery and return to work, increases workers’ comp costs and reduces business productivity.

TPB: What’s Pinnacol doing to help employers and their employees curb tobacco use?

Brockbank: Pinnacol offers a Worksite Wellness Program, which includes a robust tobacco-cessation component. The program’s entirely free of charge to Colorado policyholders and their workers, including employees who have no health insurance. Significantly, Pinnacol’s the first and only workers’ compensation insurer in the nation to offer a wellness program to the employer community.

Pinnacol partners with Colorado QuitLine to offer the tobacco-cessation component of the program. This component includes coaching sessions by phone in English and five other languages, as well as 24×7 online support. Also included are nicotine patches, gum and lozenges, as well as and tips and tools – both online modules and a workbook – to help employees quit and live tobacco-free.

We know Pinnacol’s Worksite Wellness Program can help workers kick the habit. During the four-year pilot of our program, health assessments showed a 35-percent reduction in tobacco use by participating employees. Even if an organization suffers no worker injuries, reduced tobacco use will save employees and employers money on health care costs, improve workers’ quality of life and increase productivity.

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