Costs rise for employers as American workers grow in circumference. A report released by the California Department of Health Services concludes that obesity costs the state $21 billion annually, and that employers bear $16 billion of that amount in health insurance, worker compensation claims and lost productivity. No estimate is available for the national cost, but California’s experience suggests that obesity is a staggering burden on American businesses. Fortunately, ergonomic solutions cost far less for employers than obesity.
The increasing girth of workers is creating a newly important demographic for ergonomists. It is easy to see why: the workplace is an ill-fitting environment for the obese. Standard chairs and workspaces are too small, and the mismatch can trigger musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and reduce productivity.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, MSDs, often related to workplace ergonomic concerns, account for 33 percent of workplace injuries and illnesses that result in lost days. The Bureau reports that MSDs are common among U.S. workers, and also result in longer periods away from the job than traumatic injuries.
Using principles designed specifically for the target demographic, ergonomists work with companies to increase human performance and reduce the risk of MSDs. It’s a matter of fitting the workplace to the population.
It sounds easy, but isn’t. Human size, skills, and mental and physical capabilities differ widely, even within a particular demographic. There is a word – "anthropometry" – for the knowledge that underpins the design of systems, products and equipment that accommodate the physical differences among people.
The Ergonomics Report™, "Big, Tall, Short, Small: What’s a Designer to Do?" explores anthropometry and the challenges designers face. It seems that the best systems are adjustable. Concluding the report, the author, Dr. Peter Budnick, suggests businesses need to evaluate business and policy decisions that are impacted by obesity - in their workplaces and in product design.
A conclusion in a related Ergonomics Report™ article is that adjustable systems achieve little if workers don’t take advantage of the built-in flexibility. In, "Effecting Change -- Getting Workers to Adopt the Right Behavior," University of Michigan researcher Dr. Els Nieuwenhuijsen said he was surprised to find how little people know about their work equipment. "I talked to office workers who didn’t know their chair could move up and down," he explained."They didn’t know where the button was."
Until aggressive national initiatives take hold and significantly reverse obesity, ergonomics appears to be the most promising way for employers to achieve the long-term savings of a healthy and productive workforce.