The increasing size of the average adult means we must think about redesigning working environments.
WE HAVE all heard of the obesity epidemic and are aware of the global threat imposed by our artificial environment which supplies energy-dense food yet starves us of exercise.
Most of the obesity threat has resonated in the public consciousness as a result of its cost to health, in terms of quality of life and its healthcare burden for governments.
However, there is another seldom-discussed consequence which affects us: that of body size increase and the consequences for fitting into the environment we live and work in.
The average size of adults is getting bigger. This means that infrastructure which accommodated individuals in centuries past will fit an ever-diminishing percentage of today’s population.
This begs the question: how long will this environment be suitable for this workforce before it needs redesigning? Also, extremely large individuals, formerly very rare, are becoming increasingly prevalent in today’s workforce.
In the working environment where available space is limited, the questions need to be asked: are very large individuals able to work comfortably and safely and, more poignantly, how does size affect a person’s ability to evacuate in an emergency?
Historical TV footage depicts a young and vibrant UK offshore workforce which by today’s standards appears fit and agile.
Three years before the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster, a study performed by Light and Dingwall at Robert Gordon Institute of Technology (the forerunner of Robert Gordon University) measured 419 male offshore workers while they attended survival training.
Their report remains the most up-to-date size information of the UK offshore population. It described height and weight together with a range of other circumference and skinfold measurements.
The average height and weight of the offshore workers was 175.6cm and 76.6kg respectively, and 95 per cent of workers weighed less than 93.2kg, while the heaviest worker weighed 115kg.
In 2009, an industry-led task group sought to profile the weight of the workforce, using data collected at heliports. Astonishingly, the average weight of the workforce had increased to 90.9kg, representing a 19 per cent gain or a hefty 6kg per decade.
However, the biggest individuals have got proportionally heavier still. By 2009, 5 per cent of the workforce weighed more than 115kg and the heaviest 1 per cent weighed more than 128kg, with the heaviest individual weighing 158kg. It is highly doubtful if the 1–2cm average height increase across the UK population during this time can explain much of the observed weight gain.
While a significant minority of offshore workers are highly strength-trained, in all likelihood the majority, like those in other industries with no immunity from the obesogenic environment, are heavier because they are fatter than their counterparts a generation ago.
While offshore workers of all shapes and sizes are still required to pass their bi-annual medical, the size question remains unasked and unanswered: is the infrastructure able to accommodate them?
We currently don’t know the answer to this question. However, in 2012 Robert Gordon University (RGU) and Oil & Gas UK jointly applied to the Technology Strategy Board for funding a size and shape study.
Their successful application, backed by the Health and Safety Executive, was predicated on the argument that oil producers and supply chain companies have a vested interest in knowing the actual size of offshore workers in order to accommodate them more effectively.
Launched in 2013 using new portable 3D scanning technology, the study is now at its halfway point, with offshore workers undergoing measurement, either at RGU’s Garthdee campus, oil company headquarters or one of Aberdeen’s three heliports servicing the North Sea.
Body scanning has several advantages over manual anthropometry, including speed, cost, retrospective analysis and the capability for measuring volumes and areas, as well as body circumferences.
Preliminary findings include quantifying the volumetric increase associated with wearing a survival suit, helpful for estimating space in enclosed lifeboats; and the standing footprint required by different sized individuals, which is useful to know for mustering.
The full results for a representative sample of the workforce will be available in 2015 and will facilitate designs of a range of factors from survival suits to accommodation modules.
Providing extra space or redeploying existing space on offshore platforms is costly, and designers rightly point to a lack of reliable size information to base future designs on.
Crucially, the study at RGU will provide the data so that this position of ignorance will become a thing of the past and the industry in future can be made safer.
• Dr Arthur Stewart is knowledge exchange co-ordinator at the Institute for Health & Wellbeing Research, Robert Gordon University www.rgu.ac.uk