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PORTLAND, Ore.—Shift work, high-stress jobs and hours of sitting in patrol cars before suddenly jumping into action help make law enforcement personnel a high-risk group for workers compensation and disability claims.
In an effort to address that problem, Oregon Health & Science University medical researchers have launched a unique health promotion and intervention program study that could help police improve their well-being so that compensable injuries are less likely and disability durations are shorter.
The health improvements also could help reduce overall health care benefit costs, said Beth Hawk, safety and wellness coordinator in Salem, Ore., for Marion County, where sheriff's department personnel are participating in the study along with officers and deputies from other Oregon agencies.
A similar health promotion program the researchers launched about 10 years ago for Oregon firefighters helped improve eating and exercise habits and has helped Portland reduce work-related health expenses by an average of $1,500 per firefighter annually, said Dr. Kerry Kuehl, one of the researchers and an associate professor of medicine at Portland-based OHSU.
Ms. Hawk said she hopes OHSU's involvement with the Marion County Sheriff's Office helps deputies improve their health and results in similar outcomes as those experienced by Oregon firefighters. In addition, such programs could help other employee populations, Ms. Hawk said.
Marion County Sheriff's employees are among hundreds of law enforcement personnel applying OHSU's strategy as part of a $2.5 million, multiyear study funded by the Nation-al Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
“They are in a high-risk occupation,” Ms. Hawk said of police. “The national health risk information available (for law enforcement officers shows) that within five years of retirement they have some chronic disease or they die,” Ms. Hawk said. “Their fatality rate is really high after they retire because of their lifestyles all the way through to retirement.”
According to NIOSH, police are at increased risk of suicide and health issues, such as cardiovascular problems. Yet they are one of the most understudied occupational groups in the nation.
Studies also have found that shift work and long work hours—both typical of police jobs—are associated with increased health and safety risks, according to NIOSH.
The work conditions mean police often are sleep-deprived, regularly eat poorly, and face unusual physical demands that contribute to illness and injury, sources said.
The compensable injury and disability challenges police face differ from those for the typical working population, said James Soto, vp and regional manager in Long Beach, Calif., for Tristar Risk Management, a division of Tristar Insurance Group Inc.
Mr. Soto is not associated with the Oregon study, but he oversees management of workers comp claims filed by Los Angeles Police Department officers and Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies.
“The fact that they often go from sitting in a car—maybe while on a stakeout—going from zero activity to all of a sudden sprinting, chasing down a suspect,” puts stress on the body, Mr. Soto said.
The OHSU project requires identifying individual law enforcement officers' specific physical conditions and health risks (see list at bottom of story). They are then grouped into peer teams to participate in a health intervention program customized for their profession.
Researchers then will follow up with an economic analysis to determine the program's cost effectiveness and compare the results of their team-based approach with the results obtained through other wellness strategies, such as those relying on health coaches for one-on-one interaction with employees, Dr. Kuehl said.
For the Marion County Sheriff's Office, OHSU first created a pilot program that ran from February to June, Ms. Hawk said. A dozen employees from various divisions participated in the pilot.
“It was amazing,” Ms. Hawk said of the volunteer participation. “We had undercover guys coming in (off the street) for this.”
The pilot participants underwent comprehensive health testing that included blood workups, treadmill cardiac tests and body composition evaluations, Ms. Hawk said.
The researchers then provided the participants with the test outcomes and divided them into two groups of six. The groups met weekly over 12 weeks for the intervention aspects of the program.
The teams worked out of a binder containing specific activities. For example, one deputy who regularly consumed two Big Macs at meals had to lay out lard on a table equal to the fat contained in the popular burgers.
Other activities included logging their sleep hours and discussing sleep habits, such as whether they regularly consumed alcohol to help them doze off, Ms. Hawk said.
At first, they were reluctant to talk about their issues, but eventually opened up to help each other.
The team approach creates positive reinforcement and peer pressure, Ms. Hawk added. If someone failed to attend a meeting, he or she heard about it from peers.
The dozen employees from different divisions that participated in the pilot provided a mix of opinions on what parts of the program will work for the rest of the department and on needed protocol adjustments, she added.
Now the project is in Phase 1, meaning about 200 of 354 Marion County Sheriff's Office employees voluntarily have participated in the medical testing, and the intervention work begins early next year for them, Ms. Hawk said.
After the intervention exercise, they will participate in multiple follow-up medical tests over three years to help gauge outcomes.
Ms. Hawk's participation has included recruiting employees to volunteer for the project, she said.
That meant a late-night visit to an employee jailhouse cafeteria; attending a patrol deputies briefing at 4:30 a.m.; and finding other locations, such as a shooting range, where the Marion County sheriff's deputies congregate.
“We did 32 of those (pitches) in a month. It was very intense,” Ms. Hawk said.
“It's getting that trust and face time and saying, "I care about you. You need to do this.'”
Marion County, Ore.'s testing program has identified several health risks common to law enforcement personnel, including:
■ High cholesterol
■ High blood pressure
■ Precardio complications due to stress, anxiety and sleep deprivation
Source: Marion County, Ore.