VIEWPOINTS : Employee Fitness : Why Blue-Collar Workers Aren’t Going to the Gym

Kerry Pechter writes about business and health from Allentown, Pa. This piece was adapted from an article in the October issue of Across the Board magazine

It is afternoon at a manufacturing company in New England, and the music of Vivaldi fills the firm’s small but modern gymnasium. Today, under bright fluorescent lights, the chairman of the board works out on a stationary rowing machine. The gym is often frequented by other key managers. A few hours later in another area of the company, the night shift is on duty. Overweight, middle-aged women sit under dim lights in unsuitable chairs, their eyes fixed on computer screens. They complain of chronic ailments. They have no time to exercise. What they and thousands of other workers like them need is good lumbar support and work schedules that don’t scramble their circadian rhythms. Corporate health programs are failing them.

Despite early hopes that aerobic exercise, Nautilus machines, racquetball courts and smoking-cessation classes would benefit all employees and reduce health-care costs, corporate efforts to promote good health have remained pretty much where they started in the mid-1970s--as a perquisite for healthy, professional, highly prized employees. Conspicuously absent--not only from the company gym but also from smoking-cessation programs and weight-loss clinics--are blue-collar workers. Missing in large numbers are the data processors, steelworkers, stitchers of garments. You won’t find them hanging out by the rowing machines after work or jogging five miles on their lunch break.

Numerous companies have found this to be true. Tenneco, a Houston-based oil and gas company, built racquetball courts and an indoor track only to find that the young and healthy used them most. At L. L. Bean in Freeport, Me., fitness directors discovered that blue-collar workers shy away from the company gym. After evaluating its new “Total Life Concept” health and fitness program, AT&T; discovered that some who needed the program most--blue-collar workers, specifically--didn’t take part. “Wellness today is what we call a yuppie phenomenon,” says Charles Althafer, the assistant director for health promotion at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. “It’s done mainly for the white-collar worker. We call it the ‘carpeted floor syndrome’ because everybody who uses health promotion works on carpeted floors.” The fit, it is said, are getting fitter.

What makes this lack of blue-collar participation worth management’s attention and concern is that hourly workers on average have worse health habits than white-collar workers and thus are at greater risk for costly problems such as heart attacks, lung cancer and back injuries.


Blue-collar workers of both sexes are twice as likely to smoke as professionals and managers (52% vs. 25.6% for women and 39% vs. 20.2% for men), according to a study conducted at the University of Minnesota. Employees who earn less than $15,000 a year are half as likely to exercise as those who earn between $35,000 and $49,000 a year, says National Research Corp., a health-care researcher in Lincoln, Neb. Blue-collar workers eat more doughnuts and suffer more job stress than white-collar workers do.

The point is this: Unless wellness programs attract hourly workers, they won’t significantly boost employee health or reduce group insurance premiums.

Why don’t blue-collar workers respond more readily to wellness programs? For one thing, they’re just too tired to lift weights at the end of the day. “That stuff is for people who push pencils,” they say. For another thing, their rigid clock-punching schedules may not allow them the time or flexibility to jog and shower at lunchtime.

But the carpeted floor syndrome runs deeper than that. To an hourly worker, wellness carries a “let them eat cake” message. Wellness programs seem a luxury when necessities in the form of safer, cleaner and quieter working conditions aren’t provided. Michael Wright, an occupational health specialist with the United Steelworkers, may have put it best: “If you’re working in a plant where it’s so dusty that you can’t see your hand in front of your face, and the foreman comes and hands out literature on smoking, people don’t take that very seriously.”


Many blue-collar workers avoid health programs in which screenings for high blood pressure or diabetes are involved because they’re afraid the results might hurt their chances for advancement or may be used to deny them a workers’ compensation claim. “If a worker has diabetes,” says Wright, “it’s good for him to be aware of it. But too often the company knows it and decides to get rid of the guy.” A hidden message inside the concept of “wellness” itself may serve to alienate blue-collar workers the most. When hourly workers are urged to be more self-reliant and to “take charge of their own health,” the message they hear is, “Whatever’s wrong with you is your own fault,” says psychologist Michael Lerner of the Institute for Labor and Mental Health in San Francisco.

What can be done about the carpeted floor syndrome? Blue-collar workers seem to participate in wellness programs more readily if they help design the programs from the start. At a Safeway bakery in Oregon, bakers and truckers needed no invitations to the basketball court and weight stations that they themselves helped build and pay for. “The difference is pride of authorship,” says Robert Jacobsen, their manager.

Of course, management can’t be expected to pamper employees. Harried supervisors can’t shut down the assembly line for the sake of a nutrition-awareness class every afternoon. “We want to give our employees the opportunity to improve their health, but we don’t feel responsible for their health,” says one manager. And he’s right.

On the other hand, involving more blue-collar workers in wellness programs can pay off handsomely in the long run. Largely because of improved morale, for example, the number of disability days per year taken by workers for back pain at the Safeway bakery has dropped to only two from 1,700, at a savings of $400,000 a year.


Rolling back the carpeted floor syndrome isn’t easy. It means giving blue-collar workers more control over the planning of health programs. It means making the work environment safer. And it requires guarantees that medical reports won’t be leaked to management. A tall order--but the rewards can be substantial. Hourly workers are at highest risk for big-ticket problems such as heart attacks and slipped disks. If employers don’t reach out, those who need health programs the most won’t get them, and corporate efforts to promote good health will never significantly reduce industry’s health-care costs.