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Ergonomic Exposures

Obesity a Missing Factor in Ergonomics

A Texas A&M study concludes that effective ergonomic guidelines must take BMI into account.
By: | July 28, 2017 • 4 min read
Topics: Safety | Workers' Comp

New research is showing how obesity can impact workers’ capacity to perform certain tasks, highlighting the need to rethink and redesign the tools and methods being used to establish ergonomic guidelines.

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As it stands now, the ergonomic tools and procedures in place to safeguard worker behavior and safety were designed using worker populations that tended to be more fit, said Ranjana Mehta, assistant professor at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, and lead author of the study, “Relationship Between BMI and Fatigability Is Task Dependent,” in the journal Human Factors.

When we look at how they are designed, most take into account work parameters, such as how heavy the load a worker may be lifting, and how often they may be doing it each day,” Mehta said.

Ranjana Mehta, assistant professor, Texas A&M University

“These tools can then help compare the demands of the work tasks with the worker’s capacity, such as their strength, endurance, and range of motion. These comparisons can provide some insight on the risks these work activities may pose on the workers.”

However, worker capacity can differ based on several personal factors, such as age, gender, and obesity, she said. While some ergonomic tools have been developed or later revised to account for gender and age, none have addressed obesity.

Most of the worker capacity and tool development studies — some as old as three decades — were based on small sets of worker pools, with little to no information on the fitness of the workers involved in the studies, Mehta said.

While some ergonomic tools have been developed or later revised to account for gender and age, none have addressed obesity.

A majority of data on strength and range of motion are based primarily on young male military personnel, and those are outliers for the working population as it stands today.

We are now experiencing an obesity epidemic, and so we have to think in terms of the demands of work and the worker’s capacity to do that work — and how that capacity is altered now that two-thirds of the working population are overweight and obese,” she said.

The study by Mehta and her team, along with University of Buffalo researchers, found that normal-weight subjects had higher endurance on grip, shoulder flexion and trunk extension tests compared with the individuals who were overweight or obese.

These results show that obesity has a substantial negative effect on muscular endurance, particularly in the large postural muscles of the shoulder and the lower back, and that the effects were most significant at lower work-intensity levels — all of which points to a need for ergonomics research to focus more on overweight and obese individuals in the workforce.

“This research was the first step toward strengthening the rationale to create a new database of worker capacity, so that new ergonomic tools can be developed and existing ergonomic tools can be revised,” Mehta said.

Scott Smith, leader of Aon’s Ergonomics practice in Irvine, Calif., said that it’s also challenging to use 1980s-era ergonomics assessment methods — developed and validated on a much younger workforce — because the population has aged, in addition to many becoming obese.

Scott Smith, Ergonomics practice leader, Aon

“Tools like the 91 NIOSH Lifting Guideline are over 20 years old and some parameters like horizontal distance are difficult to apply to workers that are overweight or obese,” Smith said.

For example, the 91 NIOSH lifting guideline states that the maximum horizontal distance that a person should keep a box away from their midsection is 25 inches, Smith said. However, a person with a 40-inch waist or more may not be able to keep a box 25 inches away from their midsection.

However, there are more advanced biomechanical computer models for material handling type assessments in which companies can input specific height and weight for a single person, and that can provide a more specific analysis of how lifting something affects that person, he said.

“With a biomechanical model, a company can determine the specific risk profile for a person with a body mass index less than 20, and another risk profile for person that has the same height, but with a BMI of over 30,” he said.

Biomechanical models, like the one developed by the University of Michigan Center for Ergonomics, are readily available for a cost, Smith said. However, the challenge is that biomechanical models are just a snapshot in time, a static model.

“What these researchers are trying to look at are the dynamic effects of obesity on muscle forces, which is what workers are really doing — they don’t work in a static model, but more dynamically,” he said.

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“There’s a need to look at how we address changes in risk factors and workstation design guideline issues that haven’t been addressed in the last 30 years, not just for the obese, but also the aging population.”

The ergonomics group at Aon has developed and uses updated ergonomics assessment tools and advanced Human 3D CAD software programs to assist clients in understanding these types of risk factors as well as at-work ergonomics program activities to resolve issues that have led to soft-tissue workers’ comp claims, Smith said.

“Aon’s team works with our clients to become more proactive with ergonomics to prevent soft tissue injuries, by leveraging more of a human performance approach to employee safety — versus a reactive approach that only addresses current injuries and their costs,” he said.

Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a freelance writer based in California. She has more than two decades of journalism experience and expertise in financial writing. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

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The Profession

Curt Gross

This director of risk management sees cyber, IP and reputation risks as evolving threats, but more formal education may make emerging risk professionals better prepared.
By: | June 1, 2018 • 4 min read

R&I: What was your first job?

My first non-professional job was working at Burger King in high school. I learned some valuable life lessons there.

R&I: How did you come to work in risk management?

After taking some accounting classes in high school, I originally thought I wanted to be an accountant. After working on a few Widgets Inc. projects in college, I figured out that wasn’t what I really wanted to do. Risk management found me. The rest is history. Looking back, I am pleased with how things worked out.

R&I: What is the risk management community doing right?

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I think we do a nice job on post graduate education. I think the ARM and CPCU designations give credibility to the profession. Plus, formal college risk management degrees are becoming more popular these days. I know The University of Akron just launched a new risk management bachelor’s program in the fall of 2017 within the business school.

R&I: What could the risk management community be doing a better job of?

I think we could do a better job with streamlining certificates of insurance or, better yet, evaluating if they are even necessary. It just seems to me that there is a significant amount of time and expense around generating certificates. There has to be a more efficient way.

R&I: What was the best location and year for the RIMS conference and why?

Selfishly, I prefer a destination with a direct flight when possible. RIMS does a nice job of selecting various locations throughout the country. It is a big job to successfully pull off a conference of that size.

Curt Gross, Director of Risk Management, Parker Hannifin Corp.

R&I: What’s been the biggest change in the risk management and insurance industry since you’ve been in it?

Definitely the change in nontraditional property & casualty exposures such as intellectual property and reputational risk. Those exposures existed way back when but in different ways. As computer networks become more and more connected and news travels at a more rapid pace, it just amplifies these types of exposures. Sometimes we have to think like the perpetrator, which can be difficult to do.

R&I: What emerging commercial risk most concerns you?

I hate to sound cliché — it’s quite the buzz these days — but I would have to say cyber. It’s such a complex risk involving nontraditional players and motives. Definitely a challenging exposure to get your arms around. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll really know the true exposure until there is more claim development.

R&I: What insurance carrier do you have the highest opinion of?

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Our captive insurance company. I’ve been fortunate to work for several companies with a captive, each one with a different operating objective. I view a captive as an essential tool for a successful risk management program.

R&I: Who is your mentor and why?

I can’t point to just one. I have and continue to be lucky to work for really good managers throughout my career. Each one has taken the time and interest to develop me as a professional. I certainly haven’t arrived yet and welcome feedback to continue to try to be the best I can be every day.

R&I: What have you accomplished that you are proudest of?

I would like to think I have and continue to bring meaningful value to my company. However, I would have to say my family is my proudest accomplishment.

R&I: What is your favorite book or movie?

Favorite movie is definitely “Good Will Hunting.”

R&I: What’s the best restaurant you’ve ever eaten at?

Tough question to narrow down. If my wife ran a restaurant, it would be hers. We try to have dinner as a family as much as possible. If I had to pick one restaurant though, I would say Fire Food & Drink in Cleveland, Ohio. Chef Katz is a culinary genius.

R&I: What is the most unusual/interesting place you have ever visited?

The Grand Canyon. It is just so vast. A close second is Stonehenge.

R&I: What is the riskiest activity you ever engaged in?

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A few, actually. Up until a few years ago, I owned a sport bike (motorcycle). Of course, I wore the proper gear, took a safety course and read a motorcycle safety book. Also, I have taken a few laps in a NASCAR [race car] around Daytona International Speedway at 180 mph. Most recently, trying to ride my daughter’s skateboard.

R&I: If the world has a modern hero, who is it and why?

The Dalai Lama. A world full of compassion, tolerance and patience and free of discrimination, racism and violence, while perhaps idealistic, sounds like a wonderful place to me.

R&I: What about this work do you find the most fulfilling or rewarding?

I really enjoy the company I work for and my role, because I get the opportunity to work with various functions. For example, while mostly finance, I get to interact with legal, human resources, employee health and safety, to name a few.

R&I: What do your friends and family think you do?

I asked my son. He said, “Risk management and insurance.” (He’s had the benefit of bring-your-kid-to-work day.)

Katie Dwyer is an associate editor at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at [email protected]