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

More from Risk & Insurance

Risk Management

The Profession

As risk manager for a cloud computing and software company, Laurie LeLack knows that the interconnected economy and cyber security remain top risks.
By: | December 14, 2017 • 4 min read

R&I: What was your first job?

One of my first jobs was actually at a local insurance agency when I was a high school student, before I had any idea I was going to get into insurance. After college, I was a claims analyst at Sunbeam.

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

I fell into it after college, where I studied international business. I had a stack of resumes, and Sunbeam came to Florida from Rhode Island, so I applied. I interviewed with the director of risk management and just stuck with it and worked my way up.

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

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Getting a holistic view of risk. Risk managers are understanding how to get all stakeholders together, so we understand how each risk is aligned. In my view, that’s the only way to properly protect and serve our organizations.

R&I: What could the risk management community do better?

We’ve come a long way, but we still have to continue breaking down silos at organizations. You also have to make sure you really understand your business model and your story so you can communicate that effectively to your broker or carrier. Without full understanding of your business, you can’t assess your exposures.

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

Being on the East Coast, I like Philadelphia.

Laurie LeLack, Senior Director, Corporate Risk and Americas Real Estate, Citrix Systems Inc.

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

Organizations understanding their cyber risk exposures and how this line of insurance can best protect them. Five to ten years ago, people shrugged it off as something just for technologies companies. But you can really see the trend ticking up as a must-have. It was always something that was needed, but people came to their own defining moments as we got more involved in electronic content and social media globally. Cyber risk is inherent in the way we do business today.

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

The advent of security and contractual obligations. These are concerns as we all play a part in this big web of a global economy. There’s that downstream effect — who’s going to be best insulated at the end of the day should something transpire, and did we set the right expectations?

R&I: Is the contingent commission controversy overblown?

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I think so. At the end of the day, it’s all about the transparency you’re getting from the people you work with. I think some best practices in transparency came out of the situation, but we were working on a fee basis, so it wasn’t as much of an issue for us as it may have been for other companies.

R&I: Are you optimistic about the U.S. economy or pessimistic and why?

I’m cautiously optimistic. We seem to be stable in terms of growth, and I’m hoping that the efficiencies and the economies of scale we achieve through technology will benefit us. But I’m also worried about the impact that could have on the number of jobs globally.

R&I: Who is your mentor and why?

Robert O’Connor, my former director when I was first on-boarded at Sunbeam, gave me so many valuable tidbits. I’ll call him to this day if I have an idea I want to bounce off him. He’s a good source of comfort and guidance.

R&I: Of what accomplishment are you most proud?

I have two very empathetic, healthy and happy boys. Eleven and soon-to-be 14.

On the professional side, there were a lot of moments during my career at Citrix where we were running a very lean organization, so I had the opportunity to get involved in many different projects that I probably wouldn’t have had in other larger organizations.

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

My favorite movie is Raiders of the Lost Ark.

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

A place in Santa Barbara called Bouchon.

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

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Caverns in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. They were interesting. It was cool to see these stalagmites and stalactites that have been growing for millions of years, and then just above ground there are homes from the 1950s.

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

Riding on the back of my husband’s Harley.

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

I like educating people and helping them find their ‘aha’ moment when you highlight areas of risk they may not have thought about. It allows people to broaden their horizons a little bit when we talk about risk and try to explore it from a different angle. I try not to be the person who always says “No” because it’s too risky, but find solutions that everyone is comfortable with given a risk profile.

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

I tell my kids I protect people and property and sometimes the things you can’t feel or touch.




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