A technique to re-assess epidemiologic evidence in light of the healthy worker effect: the case of firefighting and heart disease

J Occup Environ Med. 2000 Oct;42(10):1021-34. doi: 10.1097/00043764-200010000-00009.


The healthy worker effect (HWE) is a bias that is believed to have strongly affected the validity of previous cohort mortality studies on the relationship between firefighting and heart disease. There is a strong healthy hired effect (a component of the HWE) among firefighters, owing particularly to the recruitment of nondiabetic candidates. This is shown in previous studies in which the reported standardized mortality ratios for diabetes are much less than unity, generally around 0.3 to 0.5. Because diabetes is known to increase the risk of heart disease, a deficit of diabetes among firefighters is expected to lead to a deficit of heart injury and disease. This would make the cohort mortality studies incapable of detecting any increase in risk of heart injury and disease among firefighters. There is also a strong healthy worker survivor effect (another component of the HWE) among firefighters. In addition, heart disease is a classic example of the HWE because heart disease is chronic and its risk factors can be identified in the selection process. It is believed that (1) a major problem of previous studies on firefighting and heart disease is their failure to recognize the importance of the HWE when interpreting their results, and (2) a technique to re-assess results in light of the HWE is urgently needed. This article addresses the generally accepted principles relating to the HWE, including its definition and sources, and proposes a technique for re-assessing the literature in light of the HWE. The technique was applied to carefully re-assess 23 studies that provided direct evidence for the relationship between firefighting and heart disease. Before the re-assessment, 7 of the 23 studies showed positive evidence and 16 showed no evidence. After the re-assessment, 11 studies showed positive evidence and 12 showed no evidence. Based on the results of the re-assessment of the 23 studies, we concluded that (1) there is strong evidence of an increased risk of death overall from heart disease among firefighters; (2) there is insufficient evidence, even after considering the HWE, that there is an increased risk of death from aortic aneurysm among firefighters; and (3) there is insufficient evidence, even after considering the HWE, for a relationship between firefighting and any heart disease subtype, such as acute myocardial infarction.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aortic Aneurysm / epidemiology
  • Aortic Aneurysm / mortality
  • Cohort Studies
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Diabetes Complications
  • Diabetes Mellitus / epidemiology
  • Fires*
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Healthy Worker Effect
  • Heart Diseases / epidemiology*
  • Heart Diseases / mortality
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Myocardial Infarction / epidemiology
  • Myocardial Infarction / mortality
  • Occupations*
  • Odds Ratio
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Risk Factors
  • Time Factors