Jun 09 2012

Obesity is a Safety Issue But Maybe Not as You Think

An Obesity Epidemic

It seems that hardly a day goes by without another reminder that western societies are facing an obesity epidemic. It’s a very real concern and there are significant health impacts for people with obesity. Diabetes, vascular disease, heart attacks, respiratory difficulties, diminished immune systems, and so the list of the dire consequences goes on.

There is no doubt that this is a public health issue but is it a workplace health issue? That’s another debate, what this post discusses are real and more immediate threats to workplace safety that arises from this obesity epidemic.

What Does Obesity Mean?

First, though, let’s make sure we’re all talking about the same thing. Obesity is usually calculated using the Body Mass Index or BMI. This is a ratio of height and weight and is calculated by dividing a person’s weight by a multiple of their height. If you want to calculate your own or someone else’s BMI you can use this handy calculator.

A BMI greater than 30 is considered obese while between 25 and 30 is considered over weight. The proportion of the populations of western societies in the obese category is increasing each year and has been for some time. In Australia in 1990 about 1 in 10 people had a BMI greater than 30 but by 2009 this had risen to 1 in 4. The US started at 1 in 4 and by 2009 had risen to 1 in 3.

Obesity Over the Years

Source: OECD Health Data 2011.

 Weight is a Concern

While these figures are scary in terms of the potential for some serious health concerns a more immediate issue for workplace safety is not so much the obesity itself but individual’s weight  irrespective of whether they are obese.

Obesity ChartObesity Chart - ImperialEquipment provided to employees for work is designed for specified load limits, such as:

      • office chairs – about 90 – 100 kg (200 – 220 lb);
      • confined space rescue equipment – about 110 kg (240 lb);
      • car seats – about 90 – 100 kg (200 – 220 lb);
      • truck seats – about  110 – 120 kg (240 – 265 lb);
      • industrial grade ladders – 110 kg (220 lb);
      • heavy-duty ladders – 150 kg (330 lb);
      • portable scaffolding – about 250 kg (550 lb)

and the list continues depending on the job and this is the total load the equipment is designed to withstand. That is, the combined weight of the people and the equipment they are using.

The immediate issue presented by the obesity epidemic is that workplaces are more likely to have employees who exceed the weight tolerances of the supplied equipment. And the question for safety people is whether they know the design loads for the equipment being supplied, the body weight of employees and whether they are compatible? It makes this a good argument for pre-employment and ongoing medical examinations.

Customised equipment is available but is more expensive that the off-the-shelf equipment usually supplied in workplaces. Another problem with customised, heavy-duty equipment is that it tends to work within load bands such as 70 kg – 90 kg or similar. A heavy-duty load band maybe 100 kg to 130 kg which is fine for people within that load range but at the lower end the functionality declines with weight until it becomes inoperable (eg shock dampening in truck seats). As a result this type of equipment can often become personalised to the person creating problems when they move jobs or locations or if someone else has to to use the equipment.

Obesity Related Work Restrictions

Obesity is directly related to a number of medical conditions that may impact on an individual’s ability to safely do some jobs irrespective of their weight. Common health problems include high blood pressure and breathing difficulties which will affect their ability to use respiratory protection such as self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) or height safety harnesses which can restrict blood flow when used.

Because their physical shape is not in the common proportions found in non-obese people it can sometimes be difficult if not impossible to get  PPE (such as chemical resistant overalls) that fits properly. Access through manholes and similar maybe impossible and even if they can enter and exit without to much difficulty, how they would be extracted in an emergency would need to be considered.

Assessing individual capabilities against job requirements is needed to make sure that what they’re expected to do at work is in line with their physical capabilities. This needs to be an ongoing process as people change over time and a pre-employment medical done 5 years ago is of little value.

Wrapping it all up

Obesity is only one factor in a range of biometric factors that need  consideration when matching people to jobs. Weight is a significant matter irrespective of an individual’s BMI. They not be obese but their weight maybe outside the load limits of the equipment they’re supposed to work with. However, obesity does present it’s own challenges when deciding whether people can do the job safely. The important thing is to make the correct decisions based on knowledge not assumption.







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