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Dr David Meredith, Head of Medicine at Coal Services has some important information on identifying and managing lifestyle health risk factors and how our workplaces can help.

For David, managing lifestyle health risk factors is an area he grapples with every day when performing or reviewing medicals for workers in our industry. Because despite the buff looking operators you see in the all the mining ads, the hard truth is that in real life, they are more likely to look like the image accompanying this story.

“Unfortunately, this photo is a more accurate representation of workers in our industry,” says David. “Just 16% of workers in our industry are in their healthy weight zone and 44% are obese, and 1 in every 25 workers morbidly so.”

We all want to lead long and healthy lives, but for many of us managing lifestyle health risks are low on our list of priorities. Yet the choices we make in just a few areas can have an enormous effect on our health and longevity.

While genetics plays a key part in our health risk factors, the main risks to our health are lifestyle factors such as smoking, risky alcohol consumption, poor diet and lack of physical exercise. Unlike genetics, these are all things that we can choose to change and improve.

Society and the industry have done well in curbing smoking and David said site drug and alcohol rules have also helped mitigate the risk associated with it. He believes the area we now need to concentrate on is excess weight and poor diet, and that workplaces can play a significant role in influencing positive change.

“In our society poor diet usually leads to obesity. There are important medical causes of obesity, but they are the cause in only a tiny fraction of cases. The overwhelming cause is that our genetics prime most of us for weight gain when there is an abundance of food and an imbalance between the daily intake of calories and those needed to meet our actual nutritional needs. Even a small imbalance over a long period can have dramatic effects,” explained David.

“This has serious consequences for individuals. Once you see a BMI over 30 you start to see reductions in lifespan which can be around 10 years once you exceed a BMI of 40. As you develop or worsen, your medical bills will mount, sick days go up, and eventually your ability to work may be impaired. Most importantly, your overall quality of life and living is impaired.

“While this might seem to be a personal health issue for the individual, it’s actually something that workplaces should care about.”

For an employer, there are straight out costs from sick leave and lost productivity, increased injuries, early loss of skilled workers and then hiring and training costs. Plus things have the potential to turn very bad for all involved when a medical incident occurs in the workplace.

David says it’s not all bad news though as there is strong evidence that tackling these factors can significantly reduce illness and mortality. 

“In the weight field, substantial gains can be made with relatively small reductions in weight of just 5%. Even if a person remains obese, there are significant metabolic gains in improving the quality of the diet and maintaining some regular exercise.

“Employers can help make a difference by introducing health benefits and incentives, as well as having an environment that encourages healthy behaviours such as walking and physical activity.

“We have seen where some sites offer onsite dining, with a further step they could also offer healthy dinners to go. Sites can also provide regular communication on health topics through various media – posters, toolbox talks, health portals with information on diet, exercise, menus and recipes. Run competitions and promote health champions. Some sites may choose to provide exercise facilities or sponsor community sports.”

“The problem [of overweight and obesity] is getting worse. There is a tsunami of impending health issues as our workforce ages. What we have been doing so far is not working. It’s time to be different; to change the current norm to a new normal.”

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