Time-related aspects of the healthy worker survivor effect

Ann Epidemiol. 2004 Oct;14(9):633-9. doi: 10.1016/j.annepidem.2003.09.019.


Purpose: Health is important for continued employment and therefore continued accrual of occupational exposure; furthermore, steady employment can benefit health. Consequently, bias can occur in estimates of cumulative exposure-mortality associations. This has been called the healthy worker survivor effect (HWSE). The processes associated with the HWSE tend to lead to variation in mortality rates with time-since-termination of employment, most notably a peak in mortality shortly after termination of employment. We use simulations and an empirical example to demonstrate that time-since-termination can be a confounding factor in analyses of occupational-exposure-mortality associations.

Methods: Simulation data were generated for 20,000 workers followed for 40 years under a model of no effect of employment duration (a proxy for cumulative exposure) on mortality. Proportional hazards regression methods were used to quantify exposure-mortality associations and evaluate methods to control for the HWSE. Results were derived after 100 iterations of the simulation. Relationships between employment duration and mortality were also investigated in a cohort of 122,247 male utility workers with adjustments for time since termination.

Results: Simulation data show a peak in mortality rates in the first year after termination of employment which declined in magnitude with continued time since termination of employment; average employment duration also declined with time since termination of employment. This led to confounding of cumulative-exposure-mortality associations, with spurious evidence of a positive association between cumulative exposure and mortality in the post-termination period. Adjustment for time-since-termination eliminated this spurious association; in contrast, adjustment for a binary indicator of employment status led to positively-biased relative rate estimates. A similar pattern was observed in analyses of utility worker data. The log relative rate of all cancer mortality is -0.12+/-0.03 per decade of employment without adjustment for time-since-termination, and -0.01+/-0.03 with adjustment for time-since-termination of employment.

Conclusions: The HWSE can lead to temporal variation in mortality rates that is correlated with cumulative exposure. Under these conditions, adjusting for time-since-termination of employment may reduce bias in estimates of cumulative-exposure-mortality trends more effectively than the commonly-used method of adjusting for a binary indicator of employment status.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Bias
  • Cohort Studies
  • Employment / statistics & numerical data*
  • Healthy Worker Effect
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms / mortality*
  • Occupational Exposure / statistics & numerical data*
  • Proportional Hazards Models
  • Survival Analysis*
  • Time Factors
  • United States / epidemiology