Back in the 1950’s, a size 16 referred to a 23-inch waist and a linebacker weighed 234 pounds. Today, a size 16 is a 36-inch waist while a linebacker tips the scales at 310 pounds. This interesting article written from an ergonomics point of view is indicative of how much our bodies are changing and the ergonomic implications that accompany it at the workplace.
According to Vicki Missar, CPE, associate director at Aon Risk Services, “If you look back 20 years ago, we’re consuming 31 percent more calories than we used to, 14 percent more sugars, 56 percent more fats and oils and 15 pounds of sugar a year.”
These are serious numbers and in this age of rising healthcare costs, employers should be concerned. Increased obesity in the workplace means more arthritis, larger waist circumferences, additional work limitations, compromised grip strength, decreased lower limb mobility and medical risks. In addition, obese employees might be more vulnerable to falls and their manual material handling ability may be compromised. Add to this list the psychological implications of low self-esteem, motivation, absenteeism, presenteeism, premature mortality and more.
Traditional workspaces are an ergonomist’s nightmare. Employers should be concerned and should stay current with design guidelines for clothing, chairs and vehicles, which often are outdated, for changing bodies. Most companies’ wellness programs lack influence from an ergonomics perspective. The obesity-ergonomics issue should be approached from a holistic, wellness-based angle.
For instance, Missar advocates assessing the BMI of the work force, considering the different obesity types represented in the workplace, assessing weight data and more. Ergonomists must examine how jobs are designed, communicate with engineers, develop more accurate job designs and ultimately design a plan around the growing and complex problem of an obese work force. Last but not least, ergonomists should implement early intervention screening, improve layouts and workflow, maximize 5S and create more movement in the workplace, particularly in an office setting.