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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Risk Management

The Profession

Maila Aganon is the personification of the American dream. The vice president of treasury and risk for Caesars Entertainment Corp. immigrated from the Philippines and worked her way to the top.
By: | October 12, 2017 • 4 min read


R&I: What was your first job?

I actually had three first jobs at the same time at the age of 16. I worked as a cashier in a fast-food restaurant, a bank teller and a debt collector for an immigration law firm.

R&I: Who is your mentor and why?

I have a few. The first one would be the first risk manager I reported to. He taught me the technical part of the job, risk financing, captives and insurance. I am also privileged to be mentored by Lori Goltermann (CEO of U.S. Retail for Aon Risk Solutions).  From her I learned to be resilient and optimize life/work balance. Then of course I also have a circle of ladies at work who I lean in to!

R&I: How did you come to work in this industry?

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I was once a bank teller and had a client who was an insurance agent. He would come in every day to make deposits. One day, he offered me a job. He said, “How would you like to have your own desk, your own phone and your own computer?” And I said, “When do I start?” I worked for this personal lines insurance company for six years.

R&I: Did you take to it immediately?

Yes, I did sales, claims and insurance accounting. I left for a couple years and that is when AAA came calling, which was my first introduction to risk management. I didn’t know there was such a thing as commercial insurance. They called me and the pitch was “how would you like to run a captive insurance company?”

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

It is not so much the job but I say that I am the true product of the American Dream. I came to the U.S. when I was 16. I worked three jobs because I didn’t want to go to high school (She’d already graduated high school in the Philippines.) I spoke very little English, and due to hard work, grit and a great smile I’m now here working with all of you!

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

In movies, it is a toss-up between Gone with the Wind and Big Daddy.

R&I: What is your favorite drink?

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I like anything sweet. If you liquify a dessert that’s my perfect drink.

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

This is easy because I just got back from Barcelona on a side trip. I visited the Montserrat Monastery, which is a thousand-year old monastery. It was raining and foggy. I hiked for three hours and I didn’t see a single soul. It was a very peaceful place.

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

This is going back to working at a fast food chain when I was young. I worked in a very undesirable location in San Francisco. At 16 I used to negotiate with gang members so they wouldn’t rob me during my shift. I had to give them chicken so they wouldn’t rob me.

Maila Aganon, VP, Treasury and Risk, Caesars Entertainment Corp.

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

I can’t say me. They have to be my kids Kyle and Hailey. They can make me laugh and cry within a half-minute of each other. Kyle is 10, a perfect Mama’s boy. Hailey is seven going on 18.

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

I think the most fulfilling part is how you build relationships with people and then after a while they become your friends.

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

Risk managers do a great job of networking. They are number one. Which is not a surprise because the pillar of our work is building a relationship with underwriters, clients and brokers.

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

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I am experiencing that right now; talent.  We need to a better job in attracting and retaining talent. Nobody knows about what we do. You tell someone ‘I’m as risk manager’ and they give you a blank look. What does that mean?

We’re great marketers and we should use this skill set in attracting talent. We should engage our universities, our communities, even our yoga groups and talk to them about the exciting world of risk. It is an exciting career because there is nothing like it.

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

It would have to be the increasing cyber risk and the interdependency of systems.

R&I: What does your family think you do? 

I took my seven year old daughter once to an insurance event that had live music, dancing and drinks. She thinks that whenever I go to an insurance meeting, I’m heading to a party.




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