MAY, 2021


Managing Diabetes in the Workplace


In 2020, 34.2 million people - just over 1 in 10 - have diabetes and another 88 million - about 1 in 3 - have prediabetes. Think about how that applies to your workforce - perhaps a tenth of your employees are diabetic - and a third of them are on their way.

Most of the time, diabetes doesn't impact an employee's performance on the job. Many people are able to manage their diabetes with a combination of diet and exercise. Others may take oral medication or may need injections with a syringe, pen, or an implanted pump.

Types of Diabetes

First, let's find out more about diabetes. Diabetes is a metabolic disorder where there's a disturbance either in the body's production or its use of insulin - or both. When this happens, too much glucose (sugar) stays in the blood and not enough goes to other organs in the body. Over time, high blood glucose levels can harden blood vessels, leading to heart disease and stroke, kidney failure, vision loss, and/or amputations.

Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease where the body attacks the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. This results in the pancreas making little to no insulin. The autoimmune attack can occur for months or years before any symptoms appear.

Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of the disease and accounts for up to 95% of adult cases. Family history, age, and other factors people can't control play a role in whether someone develops type 2 diabetes. However, two of the biggest factors are controllable: body weight and physical activity, which is why diabetes is often called a lifestyle disease. Many people with this type of diabetes manage their condition with diet and exercise, but others may also need medications.

Gestational Diabetes

When a woman's body stops producing or using insulin effectively during pregnancy, the condition is known as gestational diabetes. Like other types of diabetes, the condition is managed with diet, exercise, and medication, if necessary. This type of diabetes usually resolves itself after the birth of the baby, but both mother and child remain at higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.

Effects of Diabetes in the Workplace

Forklift, Fork, Lift, Fork Removal, Warning

In many workplaces, like an office or retail environment, an employee's diabetes is very unlikely to put themselves or others at risk. However, in manufacturing or construction, where a worker could become disoriented while operating heavy machinery, the risk of injury is higher without reasonable accommodations.

Low blood sugar levels (hypoglycemia) can cause disorientation and fainting episodes, which are uncommon and can generally be avoided with a few reasonable (and inexpensive) accommodations. In contrast, hyperglycemia (high blood sugar levels) occurs when the body isn't making enough insulin or isn't using it effectively. Immediate symptoms can be hunger, thirst, and frequent urination, but if left untreated, can affect cognitive ability, vision, and diabetic coma.

In the United States, employers may not discriminate against people with diabetes.  

Addressing Diabetes is Good for Business

As mentioned, 2009 amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act clarify that people with diabetes are protected by anti-discrimination laws. Helping employees with diabetes prevent or manage tier diabetes can help them become more productive and healthier. It can also reduce their out-of-pocket costs and those of your business too!

Factors in the workplace associated with the development of diabetes include sedentary work - not just at a desk, the person who drives a forklift or operates a crane for 8 hours a day is sitting too. Schedules that include shift work or not enough time to rest between shifts are another. The availability of healthy food choices on or near the job site can also make it more difficult for people to manage their diabetes and makes it more likely that those who are prediabetic may develop the disease. Most importantly, schedules or work environments that make eating regularly and taking medication difficult also contribute to issues with managing diabetes.

What Can Workplaces Do?

So how can an employer make a difference - and improve the productivity of your employees with diabetes? Workplaces can help in a variety of ways.

They can include diabetes prevention and diabetes management information as part of workplace health and wellness programs. Educate managers and supervisors about diabetes so they're aware of the needs of employees with diabetes and how to accommodate them. Make sure those trained to give first aid can recognize the symptoms of hypoglycemia so they can provide appropriate assistance.
Diabetes, Blood Sugar, Diabetic, Medicine, Insulin

One accommodation that can be made easily is allowing for a few extra breaks so employees can check their blood sugar levels or eat a quick snack between meal breaks. A private, clean area to check blood glucose levels, or administer insulin injections or other medications.

Refrigeration might be necessary for the safe storage of insulin. Providing a disposal container for "sharps" may be needed if employees use needles for their medication. Employees with diabetes may need to keep food or testing supplies near their work station or in the break room so they can easily access them throughout the day.

Additionally, giving stable, consistent hours to employees so they can maintain a regular routine is helpful. This helps prevent diabetes by ensuring employees have time for physical activities outside of work and for getting enough sleep. Offering a smoking cessation program as part of health benefits is another thing that helps prevent complications of diabetes as well as reduce larger healthcare costs to the business.

Accommodations to PPE

Of special note to industries that require personal protective equipment, in 2012 OSHA updated their PPE standards. They state that workers who cannot wear some kinds of required PPE may discuss possible alternatives or reasonable accommodations. This is important to mention because some people with diabetes develop foot problems like poor circulation or sores.

Beck's Shoes is proud to offer a variety of diabetic socks as well as safety boots and shoes with wide widths and both steel and composite toe caps that can help meet these kinds of accommodation requests.

The American Diabetes Association is a good source of information for employers who wish to conduct risk assessments and gather current information about diabetes. Offering ongoing support and education to employees about healthy food choices or the benefits and services offered in their health plan helps workers with diabetes cope with their condition better. In the long run, these efforts will pay off by improving quality of life, which leads to increased productivity on the job, fewer unplanned absences, and reduced healthcare costs for the business and the employee.