Workplace Wellness for the Police Department?

cops at dunkinIt’s National Donut Day and who else would we feature in this post but our favorite donut loving law enforcement officers? A controversial story out of the San Jose Mercury News says that police officers might be struggling to maintain their “fit” for duty status.

Now, as we all know obesity is linked to diseases, increased overall health care costs and increased costs for workers’ comp claims- as it can slow recovery time and make it difficult to adjust back to the work environment. I don’t mean to pick on the fine men and women of the police force but, according to this article, it looks like they are a group of employees who are falling victim to the plague many desk workers face- sedentary activity and other unhealthy habits that lead to weight gain.

A California officer, Zach Hoyer gained almost 150 pounds on the job and he attributes it to working extended hours and late night shifts where he ate fast food while he was out on duty. He has since lost some weight, but he put himself in a dangerous predicament. Obesity is dangerous as it is, but it can put someone in an already hazardous job in further danger.

“There are very few jobs where your life might depend on your level of fitness,” says Lt. Ray Backman of the Oakland Police Department.

He described officers who usually haul 20 or 30 pounds worth of extra equipment as they are sprinting several blocks after criminals. These high intensity scenarios might be difficult for officers who are out of shape. There is also the stress and fatigue caused by the general circumstances of the job- factors that can be aggravated by extra weight. Stress can also lead to poor dietary choices, overeating or lack of sleep, factors which don’t help the fight against obesity. It all becomes a vicious cycle. This cycle is one that is faced by the rest of the working population too, but most of their jobs don’t place them in highly dangerous situations where they need to defend themselves on a day to day basis.

According to a CDC study this past January that ranked obesity rates vs profession, police and firefighters ranked third in most overweight behind truck drivers and movers. That does not bode well for officers on duty who put their lives on the line.

In California, once a cadet passes the tests of the police academy they are usually good to go for the rest of their careers, and it’s up to local stations to decide if they want to give regular fitness tests. But there are 608 agencies in the state and none of them require a fitness test to stay active in the force. In 1995 annual fitness tests for the highway patrol were abolished as part of a contract negotiation. Some of the more specialized teams, like bomb squads and SWAT team officers, do undergo physical tests to stay in those positions.

Some cited budgetary reasons for eliminating these tests.  Sgt. J.D. Nelson pointed to the cost of workers’ comp claims that are received from officers preparing for these tests too. Still, many officers say that fitness is a problem on the force. Officers rely on their weapons, cars and better technology to chase criminals and are not moving around as much in the community. What if the time comes that they need to scale a fence and they are left huffing and puffing?

One department in Union City offers their workers free gym memberships and trains them in self-defense tactics that require them to get up and move to make the arrest, not rely so much on their car or other technologies. San Francisco officers hold fitness tests and officers that do well receive 20 extra hours of vacation- an incentive program if I ever heard it.

I don’t think the conclusion to draw from this article is that we should start to discriminate against police and treat them as prize-fighting boxers who need to stay within a certain weight class to keep their jobs. There are likely lots of heavier officers who do an outstanding job and we are grateful for their services. But it might be a good idea for departments to encourage fitness and healthy lifestyles, not just for their health but for their future safety on the job.

What's your take? Continue the discussion with others over at the WCInsights LinkedIn Group.
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