BALDWIN, Ga. -- In the early 1990s, Fieldale Farms had a troubling problem: Employee heart attacks, at an average cost of $50,000 apiece, were quickly making insurance unaffordable for the small chicken processing company.
''At the time, the average worker was 45 years old,'' said Denise Ivester, Fieldale's human resources manager. ''I said, 'This is from gravy and biscuits in the South.'''
Indeed, local habits were hard to break -- workers didn't get regular exercise and preferred deep-fried Southern delicacies over fruits and vegetables.
But the company went on a campaign to make its 4,600 employees healthier. It paid for gym memberships and offered free health screenings, one-on-one nutritional counseling and educational sessions at work about heart disease, diabetes and other preventable health problems.
Those steps have helped Fieldale, which processes and packages chicken for grocery stores, go from a health-cost nightmare to a healthy model. It is one of six companies nationally that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is citing as an example of what businesses can do to improve employee health.
Since Fieldale Farms started its wellness program in 1992, its cost for health insurance has grown at an average annual rate of just 2.5 percent, far below the national average of 12 percent. The company health insurance plan spends less than $3,000 a year per employee, compared to the national average of $5,800. The wellness program costs $200,000 a year, but the company insists it is worth it.
''We did it originally for money savings and we still do it, but ... you might even save their lives at the end of the day -- that is the win for us,'' Ivester said. ''It's worth every dime. The cost is minimal when you are looking at $10 million, $11 million plans.''
The company started with voluntary at-work cholesterol screenings, then added free mammograms and blood pressure checks.
Then it included colorectal cancer test kits and prostate cancer and diabetes screenings. The screenings and counseling also are given in Spanish, Vietnamese and Laotian to accommodate all workers.
Extra perks for participating are Wal-Mart gift certificates, T-shirts and a chance at a George Foreman grill or a gym bag.
About 60 percent of Fieldale's employees take part; the goal is at least 80 percent.
Sixty-one-year-old employee Robert Reaghard of Baldwin credits the program with helping him better manage his diabetes and lose 98 pounds. ''They taught me to watch what I eat,'' Reaghard said.
Plant worker Jerry Pittman said the program helped her lower her blood pressure to safer levels by eating healthier, smaller portions and exercising.
''I was eating everything I wanted until I got full,'' including too much salt and pork, said Pittman, 53, of Toccoa. ''Now I want cereal -- it is better for me. I used to not stand skim milk; thanks to this I am on it.''
Similar wellness programs -- offering screenings, counseling and checkups -- are a regular part of major corporations like General Motors, L.L. Bean, and Johnson & Johnson. But Fieldale Farms is noteworthy because it is so much smaller than the Fortune 500 giants, said Dyann Matsonkoffman, of the CDC's cardiovascular health branch.
''Our business is to promote health, and where do most adults spend most of their time? At the worksite,'' Matsonkoffman said.
Nationwide, about 43 percent of companies surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management offered health screenings. One in five have fitness centers at work and more than a quarter offer weight-loss programs.
Haven Manufacturing Corp. in Brunswick, Ga., is planning to offer health screenings and educational programs by the end of the year because its health insurance premiums have jumped by 36 percent because of chronic disease.
''You can't make anybody take their medicine, but we want them to be aware of the chronic diseases before they become a problem,'' said company controller Ed Bland.
Many other companies are ill-equipped to prevent chronic illness because the employers focus too much on doctors' payments as an attempt to keep costs down, said Emory University's Kenneth Thorpe, a national health care expert.
''You have to focus on patients and chronic illnesses -- if the focus is on providers, you're going to be missing the boat,'' Thorpe said. ''We're sort of stuck in yesterday's vision of this. The focus has got to be on people preventing diseases and treating it once we get sick.''
Poultry plant supervisor Tony Bennett said he has benefited from Fieldale's health program. In January, he had a heart attack at work; despite being warned of his high cholesterol in a screening test, he failed to change his diet and exercise habits.
That's all in the past.
Now, Bennett takes advantage of the company's free gym memberships, working out three times a week. He also stays away from fried foods, eats more salads and only drinks a soda a week, instead of one a day.
''I can tell a difference since I made lifestyle changes,'' Bennett said.
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CDC info: http://www.cdc.gov/cvh
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