An apple a day keeps the accidents away

When Beth Castle goes onto a work site in northern Alberta, the big burly men welcome her with open arms — fruit basket and all. Castle is a nutritionist who strives to help remote workers make healthier food choices.

“A lot of the guys come up to me and say ‘You know what, I wish I had this information long ago because now I’m a Type 2 diabetic and have heart disease or have had a stroke,” says Castle, owner of Redneck Nutrition in Calgary.

Remote workers from all industries, such as construction, utilities and electrical, municipal governments, mining and oil and gas, face a particular challenge with proper nutrition.

“They have issues with long hours and intense work, and sometimes it’s extreme hard work… and at that point they don’t have any concern about nutrition and making good choices,” says Castle.

A 2013 report by Target Logistics in The Woodlands, Texas, examined factors that affect worker health, safety and productivity in remote work sites, and it found better nutrition programs can lower accident rates.

“Food and rest are, in essence, protective equipment, and they serve to lower the risk of serious workplace accidents,” says the report. “As such, food and rest should be viewed as essential to worker safety and health as goggles, ear protection.”

The report found the number 1 cause of worker-initiated accidents is fatigue in its various forms, such as exhaustion, weakness or sleepiness. Proper nutrition can have a big impact on ensuring workers stay alert on the job and have sufficient energy to perform physically demanding tasks, says Ken MacLean, director ?of marketing for Algeco Scotsman, the parent company of Target Logistics, ?in Edmonton.

If workers are not receiving the proper nutrition and have not eaten for a long period of time, they can experience low blood sugar (or hypoglycemia) which comes with a slew of safety concerns. They may experience headaches, dizziness, sweating, trembling, tremors, clumsiness and difficulty paying attention. Workers might also experience anxiety, confusion and changes in behaviour and mood.

“Can you imagine working sensitive, sensitive equipment when that is going on?” asks Castle. “And what if it is low blood sugar and lack of sleep? The combination can be deadly.”

Fair fare at camps?

The fare at camps seen in industries such as oil and gas and mining can vary widely. For example, the options at camps in Western Canada are often of high quality because it is a very tight labour market in the area and having excellent food helps employers attract the best talent, says MacLean.

But at the other end of the spectrum, there are caterers that cut corners and serve food that is lower in nutritional value, such as frozen, fried foods and powdered concentrates.

The cooks at some camps may benefit from a dietician coming in to educate them on healthy cooking techniques.

For employers with a large number of Aboriginal workers at their remote sites, cooks should prepare special meals of whole foods — such as whole grains, vegetables and wild game — for this workforce that suffers a high rate of diabetes. There is also a special food guide from Health Canada specifically for First Nations, Inuit and Métis.

But cooks may need support from the company to ride out the culture shift.

“Sometimes the cooks will say ?‘The guys only want fries and gravy,’ so it can be difficult for them because if they end up having fruit and vegetables and things go to waste, you know what, they will say ‘Why am I buying that when no one is going to eat it?’” says Castle.

To encourage workers to make healthier choices at the camp, one idea is to label the food options in the cafeteria to indicate the different levels of nutrition.

“They could label them worst, better, best or however they want to label them, and what happens if you do that, it’s more conscious,” says Castle.

Nutritional information for menu items can also be available online through the food service provider.

One innovative idea from ESS North America, a food services provider for oil and gas, mining and infrastructure companies, is to have “portion plates” available in the cafeteria. These plates encourage workers to fill one-half of their plate with vegetables, one-quarter with a starch and one-quarter with a protein. So far, about 30 per cent of workers that have this program available to them have traded their white plate for a plate with printed portion sizes on it, says Erin Meehan, president of ESS North America in Toronto.

Grab-and-go ?common off site

The type of food available to remote workers not at a camp is a big problem, says Castle.

“I’ve seen guys grab bags of junk food from convenience stores because they don’t have the time, patience, energy, they’re grab-and-go and they are paying $30 or $40 for bags of garbage and taking that to the site and relying on that,” she says. “Some guys are drinking five to six energy drinks per day, and they give you a synthetic high — our brains need good food.”

If a convenience store is all a worker has access to, there are better decisions he can make, such as pre-packaged oatmeal, breakfast bars, nuts, dried fruit and bottled fruit smoothies. Some convenience stores also have sandwiches, fresh fruit cups and salads.

Many of these workers have to live out of hotel rooms, so they need to be educated on how to make the most out of not having a kitchen. If they have a microwave in their room, they can learn about the different healthy foods they can cook that way, such as chicken, baked potatoes and omelets with a microwave egg cooker, says Castle.

Improving nutrition

When it comes to what can be done to improve nutrition among the remote workforce, whether they are at a camp or not, it all starts with education.

A poster campaign is a great way to raise awareness. For example, posters with pictures of healthy foods explaining their nutritional value and diagrams of proper portion sizes can be helpful.

Employers may want to bring in a nutritionist to explain to workers the principles of good nutrition and exactly what food is, says Castle. They need to know what is a carbohydrate, protein and fat and what they do for the human body.

They also need a clear understanding of what vitamins and nutrients their body requires. For example, the B-complex vitamins found in meats and whole grains are needed for ?tissue repair and conversion; vitamins ?A and C, found in vegetables, are needed for immunity; and vitamin D, found in fatty fish, is needed for calcium absorption.

Workers in heavy labour in extreme conditions, such as the bitter cold that is common to many North American drilling operations, typically need upwards of 4,000 calories per day, found the Target report. Most workers will burn more than 300 calories per hour.

Fast food or diets high in carbohydrates can leave workers hungry or weak after just a few hours on the job. In general, the body in manual labour requires 1.2 grams to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, found the report.

To get remote worker buy-in for healthier eating on camps or off, it is crucial the program is realistic and practical for the workers.

“Kale chips, quinoa, yeah it’s good to have some of those things and to educate and say ‘Hey, here is this week’s idea for something to try’ but it has to be realistic for them,” says Castle.

One way to get worker buy-in is simply through the natural peer pressure that occurs, says Meehan.

“If a program is inviting and interesting and some people find value in it, the health and safety professionals should focus specifically on targeting that group of people and have them become peers to those who eat not so healthy,” she says.

Fuel for the future

Health and safety professionals with remote workers should be taking a look at the demographics of their workforce.

As more mature workers enter their 60s, they are very responsive to improving their overall health because they want to live a long retirement life, says Meehan. There is also an influx of much younger workers coming on site and some of them are very health conscious and interested in wellness, while others are from the “hamburger and fries generation,” says Meehan.

“If we don’t do anything about their nutrition, we could end up with an epidemic much worse than you have seen in the baby boomer generation who was used to meat, potatoes and veggies,” she says.

Nutrition programs can not just improve worker health, they also yield a significant return on investment, found the report. For example, Husky Injection Molding Systems in Bolton, Ont., reported $8 million in yearly savings from a $4 million investment in wellness, which includes many healthy food options. The Canadian government estimates that wellness, which includes better nutrition, amounts to a $2 to $6 return on investment.

“It make sense that anytime you can perform a task efficiently, without an incident and without error you can perform more profitably,” says MacLean. “As we look at nutrition, we’re looking at a healthy, engaged, attentive worker and that gives the best possible opportunity to achieve heightened productivity.”

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2015 issue of COS.