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June 23, 2014
What does the obesity epidemic mean for workplace safety?
By Emily Scace, Senior Editor, Safety

It’s no secret that the American workforce is becoming heavier. With over a third of the American population now classified as obese, have you considered the impact of your workers’ expanding waistlines on workplace safety? Keep reading for key issues to consider.

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At Safety 2014, the annual conference of the American Society of Safety Engineers, obesity was a hot topic. Fred Kohanna, M.D., Corporate Medical Director for AllOne Health Resources, spoke about the numerous safety issues associated with a heavier workforce. And in a separate session, Richard Sesek, Ph.D., Director of the Occupational Safety and Ergonomics Program in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Auburn University, addressed ergonomic issues in presentation titled “America’s Changing Workforce: Ramifications for Ergonomic Modeling.”

Among the top concerns the sessions highlighted:

Heat stress. Heat stress can be life-threatening, and obesity is a major risk factor for heat-related illnesses. Heat stress is fatal 3.5 times more often in obese individuals than in normal weight individuals because it reduces the ability of the body to dissipate heat, increases stress on the cardiovascular system, and can exacerbate obesity-related medical conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

Falls. Obese employees may have compromised gait and mobility, putting them at a greater risk of falls. Older obese adults fall almost twice as often as normal weight adults, and older obese adults who fall are more likely to have an injury that will require medical attention. In addition, fall protection equipment is often rated only to 310 pounds and may provide inadequate protection for heavier individuals.

Confined spaces. Obese workers are at increased risk for sudden incapacitation due to conditions such as heart attack and stroke, and it can be difficult—and dangerous for coworkers—to rescue an obese worker from a confined space if an emergency occurs.

Personal protective equipment (PPE). PPE may not be readily available in large sizes and may be worn less frequently by obese employees due to comfort issues. Poorly fitting (or absent) PPE provides inadequate protection and in some cases can pose an additional safety hazard.

Sleepiness. Obese individuals are at an increased risk of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which is caused by repetitive airway obstruction during sleep that leads to sleep interruptions. If undiagnosed or untreated, OSA can cause excessive daytime sleepiness. It goes without saying that drowsiness on the job can be hazardous, particularly for workers in safety-sensitive positions such as operating machinery, driving, using power tools, working at heights, and more.

Ergonomics. The extra weight obese individuals carry can magnify the force resulting from lifting. Obese workers’ range of motion is also constrained in many cases, limiting how lifts can be performed. Aerobic capacity is often decreased, and it takes obese workers more energy to perform a given task than their normal weight counterparts. All of these factors contribute to a greater risk of injury.

So what can employers do about these issues? With obese employees missing 13 times more days of work from work-related injuries and filing twice as many workers’ compensation claims, a solution is critical, and both Kohanna and Sesek offered some advice. Following is a list of tips for employers to address obesity-related concerns:

  • Design health benefits to incentivize healthy behavior. Examples include subsidies for gym or health club memberships, lower health insurance premiums for employees who complete health assessments, and incentives for employees who exercise regularly.
  • Provide healthy food choices in the workplace and at company events.
  • Offer on-site health coaching, BMI assessments, weight loss programs, exercise classes, or other alternatives.
  • Assess workplace conditions to make sure that obese workers are not exposed to different hazards than their normal weight counterparts. Examples include making properly fitting PPE available, ensuring that workstations allow enough space for obese individuals to work effectively and safely, and verifying that machinery and tools can be safely operated by employees of all sizes.
  • Before assigning obese employees to operations such as confined space entry or working at heights, ensure that a rescue operation could be completed safely.
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