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'Wellness' a healthy investment for company

  • Story Highlights
  • Nebraska company grades employees on how healthy they are
  • All employees have quarterly checks of weight, body fat and flexibility
  • Firm's per-employee health-care cost is $4,000 annually, about half regional average
  • Company president: Fitter workers more productive, have better morale, are safer
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By David S. Martin
CNN Medical Producer
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LINCOLN, Nebraska (CNN) -- Lincoln Industries looks like a typical blue-collar plant: workers cutting, bending, plating and polishing steel for products such as motorcycle tailpipes and truck exhausts amid the din of machinery.

Howard Tegtmeier, right, leads co-workers in stretching before their shift starts at Lincoln Industries.

Howard Tegtmeier, right, leads co-workers in stretching before their shift starts at Lincoln Industries.

But the 565-employee Nebraska company is different.

Lincoln Industries has three full-time employees devoted to "wellness" and offers on-site massages and pre-shift stretching.

Most unusual of all: The company requires all employees to undergo quarterly checkups measuring weight, body fat and flexibility. It also conducts annual blood, vision and hearing tests.

"When you get the encouragement from somebody to help you with nutrition and to help with a more active lifestyle, it makes it easier to be able to attain a lifestyle that most people want to attain anyway," says Hank Orme, president of Lincoln Industries.

The program has been in place 16 years.

The company ranks workers on their fitness, from platinum, gold and silver down to "non-medal." To achieve platinum, they must reach fitness goals and be nonsmokers -- and the company offers smoking cessation classes.

For employees, reaching platinum means a three-day, company-paid trip each summer to climb a 14,000-foot peak in Colorado. This year, 103 qualified, the most ever. And 70 made the climb.

For the company, the payoff is significantly lower health-care costs. The company pays less than $4,000 per employee, about half the regional average and a savings of more than $2 million. That makes the $400,000 Lincoln Industries spends each year on wellness a bargain. Video Watch Dr. Sanjay Gupta on wellness at work »

"The return on investment is extraordinary," Orme says.

The investment in "wellness" pays other dividends, according to Orme. He says fitter workers are more productive, have better morale and are safer. As evidence, he points to worker's compensation claims. Ongoing safety training and an increasingly fit work force have pushed worker's comp costs down from $500,000 five years ago to less than $10,000 so far this year.

Seven years ago, shift leader Howard Tegtmeier was in the non-medal category. The 49-year-old smoked, drank, was overweight and took 12 pills a day to treat high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.

"I just made the decision it was time to change my life, and the wellness program showed me ways to do that," Tegtmeier says.

Tegtmeier says he no longer smokes or drinks. His weight is down from 230 to 180, thanks to diet and exercise. His cholesterol and blood pressure are also down, and he says he no longer needs medication.

Tonya Vyhlidal, Wellness and Life Enhancement director, says Lincoln Industries doesn't pressure workers who don't want to participate. But sooner or later, she says, the company's "culture" attracts most employees to live healthier lives.

The company sponsors races, helps with gym memberships or exercise equipment, offers healthy choices in the vending machines and hosts classes on health and nutrition.

"There's a way to engage everyone. Even those that are really resistant," Vyhlidal says, adding that she'll offer employees suggestions based on what makes them feel fulfilled: "Do you like to ride a bike? Ride a bike. Do you like to cook? You may need a different cookbook."

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This month, Tegtmeier and 69 co-workers climbed Mount Bierstadt, a 14,060-foot mountain. All of them reached the summit. It was Tegtmeier's fourth climb with the company.

"The view up here is wonderful," he said.

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