The evolving concept of the healthy worker survivor effect

Epidemiology. 1994 Mar;5(2):189-96. doi: 10.1097/00001648-199403000-00009.


The "healthy worker survivor effect" describes a continuing selection process such that those who remain employed tend to be healthier than those who leave employment. In an analysis of exposure-response patterns in an occupational study, the healthy worker survivor effect generally attenuates an adverse effect of exposure. In practical terms, such attenuation will be more problematic when evaluating subtle rather than strong associations. The use of an internal referent does not guarantee elimination of this effect, since by definition, it manifests within an occupational cohort. Although documented over 100 years ago, there is little consensus regarding the most appropriate method to control for the healthy worker survivor effect. Four methods have been proposed for its control: (1) restriction of the cohort to survivors of a fixed number of years of follow-up, (2) lagging the exposure to exclude recent exposure incurred by those who remained on the job, (3) adjusting for employment status as a confounder, and (4) treating the healthy worker survivor effect simultaneously as an intermediate and confounding variable by means of the G-null test or its extension, G-estimation analysis, using structurally nested failure time models. This paper reviews the concept of the healthy worker survivor effect and the four methods to control for it.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Bias
  • Confounding Factors, Epidemiologic
  • Epidemiologic Methods*
  • Healthy Worker Effect*
  • Humans
  • Occupational Diseases / epidemiology
  • Occupational Exposure / statistics & numerical data
  • Survival Rate