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Mar 2016

Are Your Fat Employees A Safety Risk?


Are your fat employees a safety risk?
Over 35 percent of U.S. adults are obese as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as having a body mass index of 30 or higher.  We all know the benefits of eating healthy, getting enough sleep and maintaining a proper weight.  

You would be hard pressed to find anyone in the developed world for whom it would come as a shock to hear that being physically fit can have a dramatically positive impact on their personal quality of life.  Yet more than 2 in 3 adults are considered to be overweight or obese.  We all hear the message, but we’re not getting any thinner.  So how does this simple fact impact your staff and workplace? How can you adjust your safety program and strategy to compensate for a heavier workforce?

Impact of Obesity on the Body

Overweight workers are more susceptible to fatigue, and can have a more difficult time performing certain tasks.  Heavier individuals run a higher risk of developing sleep apnea and asthma which can both result in fatigue.  Excess body fat affects mobility by interfering with the fluidity of motion required in the course of certain job duties.  Excess body weight also inhibits the body’s ability to regulate heat which can be a serious factor when working outdoors or in hot environments. An obese persons’ higher risk of sudden heart attack is not only of personal concern but can put the safety of those working in concert with the individual in jeopardy as well. All of these factors played a role when BHP made the decision to fire an obese worker with a BMI of more than 50. Any mismatch between a workers required tasks and their physical ability to perform them should raise a red flag.  It falls on the employer to maintain a safe work environment.

Workplace Environmental Factors to Consider

A study of public sector employees showed a higher occupational injury rate for obese employees when compared with their counterparts at a healthy weight.  Not only are injury rates higher, but the severity and duration of these incidents are also factors to consider.  The costs of injuries suffered by obese employees are nearly double that of workers who maintain a healthy weight.  

Work in confined spaces is of concern for overweight workers.  A bigger individual may find it difficult to operate certain machinery designed to accommodate a smaller operator.  The employee’s physical size may inhibit their ability to perform work in tight spaces, and in some cases to enter those spaces in the first place.  If an incident does occur in a confined space it may be more difficult for rescue workers to provide the needed assistance to a heavier individual.

Safety equipment is often designed for those with healthy BMI numbers.  The required PPE may not be available for larger individuals which can result in the equipment that is available being used improperly or not at all.  Respirators are not effective unless ergonomically fitted, fall protection equipment may not account for the extra weight of the worker, and a large waist may prevent the worker from wearing the appropriate harnesses.

Workplace Solutions

U.S. employees often live and work in environments where it is far too easy to gobble calories and far too difficult to burn them off.  We are working longer hours, commuting further, and stressing more.  Workers know they need to eat a healthier diet, increase physical activity, and live a healthier lifestyle.  An effective solution to the problem of obesity must involve giving your employees what they are lacking.  The US employee is spending the largest portion of their day at work and that is where they must find the tools and motivation to combat their obesity.

Lose the bowls of candy and sugary treats.  Offer fresh fruit at the front desk.

Provide free quality water and toss the sugary vending machines

Overhaul that cafeteria to make healthy food options stand out and encourage healthy food decisions

Offer commercial weight loss programs, membership fee waivers, or support groups.  The money you spend on these programs will easily be made up by lower healthcare costs and reduced workers compensation expenses.

Inject physical activity wherever possible.  You can incorporate stretch breaks into meetings, perform walking meetings when possible, or physically alter the working environment to promote physical activity.

Institute weight loss competitions amongst employees, with meaningful prizes for losing the weight.  Offer prizes based on changes to the employees BMI and not just for pounds lost.

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