Google some combination of ‘fat/overweight/obese’ and ‘ergonomics’, and mostly what comes up is advice for health workers on how to lift and move heavy patients. I think I found one sole article on how fat peoples’ bodies can be shaped, proportioned, and move and settle differently to more slender people, and even then it wasn’t very specific. What with the Obesity! Epidemic! OMG! you might have thought more ergonomics specialists and equipment manufacturers might have thought about this, but it seems they either just plain don’t think about fat people, are embarrassed or repulsed to think about fat people, or possibly think that the only things fat people do are move from their donut-crumb-encrusted sofa to their mobility scooter to go get more donuts and fizzy drinks.
Here’s the thing: nearly all equipment in the world has seemingly been designed for an average height and “normal” weight MAN. Office equipment (even though there’s all those pink collar jobs), medical equipment, vehicle interiors, everything. Anyone else is an afterthought, and frankly this is incredibly bad design practice. In my line of work, which is the intarwebs, we (at least where I work) consider that accessibility has to be thought of and incorporated into design from the very start. And this doesn’t just mean access for people with a disability (which unfortunately a lot of web developers seem to think starts and ends with blind people using screen readers). It means people with all kinds of equipment, internet speeds, educational ability, physical and mental disabilities, and so on. Not just Male Nerds With Spiffy Computers.
If only designers of other things would make such considerations. I’ve never seen so much whining as when access for disabled people has to be incorporated into new buildings (it’s the law!). “You mean I have to spend an extra $2000 installing a ramp? WHINE. It’s TOO HARD.” Yeah, whatever. Fuck off.
And then there are people who may not be disabled but are simply shaped differently to tall-ish not-fat men. I have really, really noticed this at work. If you are reasonably fat, your body has that extra padding, and it can change the way your legs and arms are positioned when you sit at a desk. If your sides are chunky (hands up who has side boobage!), your arms place wider than is usually expected. This can lead to shoulder straining and even more ulnar deviation and such than is also expected. See how your forearms are flat to keep your hands palm-down when you type? And you have to bring them close to your middle line to place them on the keyboard? This is a fairly unnatural position even for slim people, it’s much better for your arms to have your palms closer to perpendicular – hence the shape of a lot of ergonomic keyboards. And if you’re fat, this strain can be aggravated by unsuitable equipment. Or if you have large breasts that are in the way of ‘keeping your elbows close to your sides’, a standard “how to sit at your desk” instruction.
(I realise there are a couple of specialist catalogues with stuff for large people, but these are usually household, travel, or personal hygiene items. Office stuff, not so much.)
If you have fat thighs, or even just standard womanly thighs with the entirely normal fat pads on the inner, and you sit with your knees apart you might not be able to use a standard footrest, as those things are pretty narrow. Standard office chairs often have fairly narrow seats, which can cause bad posture from poor pelvic support. The shaping of the seats is made for man-thighs and man-arse, so fat people, and often many women, can have trouble aligning their thigh bone to be parallel to the ground (another standard instruction for correct seat positioning). It may not be comfortable for you to even do that. Another standard positioning instruction is to have your upper and lower legs at a right angle. I think this was mentioned in a Shapely Prose thread in some comments about yoga, but people with large thighs and calves can have more tendon/ligament/etc extension when bending knees. Again, this 90 degree knee angle may not be comfortable or appropriate. Maybe if you have a large belly certain seating positions are uncomfortable for belly-squishing reasons.
Most office chairs are only rated to 100kg/220lbs. You have to pay nearly four times as much to get a chair rated for over that, and even then most are only rated to about 150kg/350lbs. Over that? Good luck. (I have to wonder about the 100kg rating. What with people getting taller, there’s heaps more people (mostly men) over 183cm/6′ tall and you can easily be 100kg/220lbs at that height and not even be fat.)
Women with very large breasts, fat people with extra front (whether belly or chest), and pregnant women may not be able to sit right up to their desks, making further problems with arm extension and posture. They might not be able to lower the desk to the correct height for arm alignment if the desk is adjustable at all.
A standard mouse isn’t really ergonomically good for anyone, but they can be even worse if you have very small or large hands.
And you know if this was written about in a mainstream newspaper or magazine, it’d be all “These problems are yet another reason you should lose weight, fatty!” and “More hidden costs of the Obesity! Crisis!” – it’s always about YOU having to change. It’s your fault. It’s your punishment to be uncomfortable until you resemble Average Guy as much as possible. So, screw that. Don’t put up with being uncomfortable. Look at what the standard ergonomic seating directions are and modify them to suit your body size and shape. Large workplaces often provide workstation assessments. Get one, and point out to the assessor that you really need suitable equipment – a chair made for large people or tiny people, a split keyboard so you can have your arms in a more natural position, a wide footrest so your knees aren’t angled painfully, and so on. If the assessor baulks, feel free to ask for a different one who’s more open-minded. If you do most of your computer work at home or somewhere where they won’t pay for specialised equipment, buy the best you can afford.
I do realise that not everyone’s workplace may be accommodating. If you have an Occupational Health and Safety area or representative, or a disability advocate, or union rep, or anyone similar, talk to them and see if anything can be done. If you can’t buy or modify anything, or have things provided, remember to take a break every 15-20 minutes, a minute or so of standing up and stretching is great. Actually you should do that anyway.
Kinesis makes some nice wide-set keyboards and ergo mice and trackballs. (They are not paying me to say this, I just like their stuff.) Slightly pricey, but I personally would rather fork out the money for one now than pay thousands to a physiotherapist later on. Which I had to do about six years ago.
What are your experiences with office setups as either a fat person or a woman? Have I missed anything? I tried to think of things that weren’t related to ME ME ME directly. (And I didn’t go into actual disabilities because there are people rather better qualified to talk about that than me.) Even things that seem inconsequential – like having to stand on a step to see the display on the fax machine because it’s on a too-high-for-you bench.
Everyone has a right to a safe working environment.