People + Process = Performance

Impact of Obesity on Productivity

The CDC’s statistics regarding obesity in America is sobering when one considers the impact on our healthcare system and for employers who need to provide jobs that accommodate the physical characteristics that occur with obesity.  According to the CDC, the percentage of Americans adults over age 20 who are obese is 35.9%.  The percentage essentially doubles if those overweight are added to those who are obesity at 69.2%!

Obesity presents a unique set of challenges to physical ergonomics in the workplace, especially when manual tasks are required more than occasionally.  There are many areas of a worker’s performance in which obesity results in different abilities.

The following areas are where performance/ability is different compared to normal weight individuals (This is especially true for very obese individuals, defined as a BMI>=40):

  • Reduced Reach distance
  • Reduced Range of motion (in the nearly all of the joints)
  • Reduced Spine flexion (in sitting and standing)
  • Reduced Work endurance (reduced strength capacity during repetitive manual tasks)
  • Greater Movement time (takes longer to perform reaching/moving tasks)
  • Balance may be compromised depending on amount of space available (obese individuals move their entire to stay balanced or reach for things compared to normal weight individuals who adjust by moving with their arms or making slight adjustments in trunk angle or foot position

The good news is that general ergonomics principles apply to obese individuals just as well as normal weight individuals.  The principles are:

  • Keep the work close to the person’s body
  • Keep it in the easy reach zone, i.e. in front of body.  Best is between waist and shoulders, Better is between knee and shoulders.
  • Provide equipment that fits/adjusts to the person
  • Alternate tasks so that the same body areas are not continuously tasked
  • If possible, redesign the work to eliminate/reduce manual labor

It’s doubtful that all America’s obesity epidemic will suddenly disappear.  Obesity along with the aging workforce presents challenges to employers to provide jobs that keep their employees healthy and productive.   Employers who fail to incorporate ergonomics and lean systems in their business systems most likely will experience greater worker healthcare costs and reduced work performance.  With the economy and the workforce demographics, can employers afford not to do so?

Source: Health, United States, 2012, table 63