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Ann Epidemiol. 2004 Oct;14(9):633-9.

Time-related aspects of the healthy worker survivor effect.

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Department of Epidemiology, School of Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC 27599, USA.



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.


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.


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.


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.

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