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Fit to Work

Kaiser Permanente’s On-The-Job program challenges employees to be

Last August, telecommunications company Verizon Hawaii put 250 of its employees on diets. Those who shed 3 percent body fat received $10, plus their choice of either a gift certificate to Sports Authority, meal coupons to the employee cafeteria or a three-month membership to Verizon’s in-house fitness center (valued at $12 a month). “The incentives don’t cost that much money—it’s what I call trash and trinkets,” says Gerald D. Okamoto, director of human resources for Verizon, which employs 3,000.

This battle against bulge is a pilot project by Kaiser Permanente’s On-the-Job program, which promotes health and safety in the workplace via awareness campaigns, screening fairs and Working Well seminars. The Wellness Council of America estimates that more than 80 percent of companies nationwide with 50 or more employees offer similar health-related programs.

Verizon managers sought Kaiser’s services last year after assessing annual health insurance claims by their own employees.

Lifting weight: Irish Hookano, a patient at Kaiser Permanente, gets her body fat measured.

To kick off the project, Kaiser conducted surveys among Verizon’s employees; an in-house health fair also was organized to measure employees’ body fat, weight and blood sugar. After gauging the levels of interest, the 250-member weight-loss group was formed. Kaiser health care specialists conduct classes at Verizon’s downtown office during lunch breaks. The eight-week seminar “Weight 4 Me” is popular.

Kaiser’s weight-loss plan is just the tip of the scale, however. The health care company offers more than 60 classes that address everything from violence in the work place, to teen-age issues and asthma.

To track progress, Verizon purchased a handheld device that measures employees’ body fat. Its price tag: $130. “That’s not including the continuous supply of batteries we have to buy,” Okamoto says.

The cost of batteries is a miniscule investment compared to the benefits Verizon is expected to generate in the future. “When employees are concerned and focused about their health, it reduces absenteeism and medical costs,” says Marianne Dymond, manager for Kaiser On-the-Job.

A study by Watson Wyatt Worldwide found that 70 percent of a company’s health care costs is linked to preventable illnesses, such as hypertension, back injuries, asthma, congestive heart failure and alcoholism. Nationwide, the top six reasons for no-show in the workplace are depression, heart diseases, mental-health disorders, low-back pain, hypertension and diabetes.

“If you look at the possibility that we prevented one major medical episode, we’ve already offset the cost that we spend for the On-the-Job program,” says Okamoto, who estimates that a single employee’s cardiovascular illness can run a company between $20,000 to $40,000 per year.

Last June, petroleum company Tesoro Hawaii Corp. asked Kaiser to conduct a Train the Trainer program for six in-house facilitators. These motivators now teach 300 Tesoro employees how to be healthy and safe in the workplace. “Our objective was to help our employees prevent injuries through stretching exercises and reduced body-fat,” says Annie K. Lam, safety specialist/industrial hygienist for Tesoro, which employs 700 and operates 35 service stations and car washes in the state.

When fitness goals are met, Tesoro employees earn points that are redeemed for raffle tickets. Altogether the company budgeted $5,000 for the program. “It’s voluntary,” Lam says. Tesoro employees in September lost a total of 127 pounds of body fat, plus another 170 pounds the following month.

As corporate America anticipates health care costs to exceed 15 percent of gross domestic product by 2002, companies are beginning to take a more holistic approach to employees. “When employers receive calls from the emergency room, their concern for their employees is no longer just the bottom line,” says Noel M. Fishman, coordinator for Kaiser On-the-Job work site health promotions. “Their concern comes from a humanistic point.”

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Hawaii Business,January