Junkfood Science: The mysterious case of men strickened by weakness

June 09, 2007

The mysterious case of men strickened by weakness

How much weight can a fit man safely lift?

It would, of course, vary considerably depending upon the situation, conditions, distance, duration and the size and strength of the man.

Clearly, it’s unreasonable to expect average men to do what Olympic weight lifters can do. Hossein Reza Zadeh of Iran, for example, got the current Olympic record for the clean and jerk in the men's 231+ pound class by lifting 579.8 pounds. The woman’s record is 402.3 pounds by Gonghong Tang of China.

On the other end of the scale, researchers at Tufts University found that after 3 months of strength training, men in their 70s were lifting 85 pounds.

According to an American Industrial Hygiene Association report assessing physical strength in ergonomics, to determine if recruits have the minimum strength necessary to do their jobs, for admission into various Air Force Specialties, they’re given the Strength Aptitude Test. The first major study testing the weight lifting abilities of men and women was conducted at the Air Force Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory in 1983. It found that male recruits could lift an average of 129 pounds six feet or more above the floor, with the minimum being 50 pounds and maximum over 200 pounds. Female recruits could lift an average of 68 pounds.

For workers who may need to lift weights more frequently or even for entire work shifts, safety and injury prevention understandably become concerns for managers who want to minimize medical costs.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not have standards limiting maximum weight employees can lift/carry, according to Richard E. Fairfax, director of enforcement programs. But the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) “has shown through research that a lifting index greater than 3.0 can clearly be linked to an increased risk of back and other injuries.” This is roughly equivalent to carrying a 160-pound weight up and down five flights of stairs three times, he said. NIOSH recently published a guide for industrial managers on the safe lifting and handling of weights to help prevent musculoskeletal injuries.

A news story a few years ago discussed the debate among American Airlines management about whether they should scale back the 100 pound requirement for their employee baggage handlers, who lift all day long, to 70 pounds.

So, while there appear to be no hard and fast rules or simple answer to that question, most people would agree that five well-trained ambulance men working together could easily lift 244 pounds without much trouble.

You would think.

So what might make five such men suddenly become struck by frailty and refuse to lift into an ambulance a 244-pound woman suffering from a heart attack, saying it was because they might hurt their backs?

According to a disturbing news story published in several papers from the UK, five paramedics did just that. While they made jokes about her being fat, the woman died.

Woman left to die because she was too fat'

Angry John Teague has claimed that ambulance paramedics left his wife to die after joking that she was TOO FAT to lift. Mr Teague, 58, alleges that the ambulance crew sneered that they would need a fire crew to lift seventeen-and-a-half stone [244 pounds] Sandra Teague, 52...

"They said they would not lift her because they could hurt their backs and not be able to work. Their reactions and their comments were disgusting. “One said she was so big they would have to call the fire brigade to get her out through the window. “When her lips turned blue, one said she was holding her breath a bit....

Mrs. Teague suffered from osteoporosis, polymyalgia, fibromyalgia, asthma, diabetes, water retention, diabetic ulcers, and had part of her thyroid removed. Steroids used in her treatment saw her weight balloon to 25st but she had dieted down to seventeen and a half stone at the time of her death.

“She sat down and she had trouble breathing." [Mr. Teague] rang a doctor and... “then two ambulances came, so there were five ambulancemen there. “They said they could not lift her up because they would hurt their backs and would not be able to work....

A trust spokeswoman said it was very sorry to hear of Mr Teague's experience but because of patient confidentiality, could not comment further until a full investigation had been carried out.

Had this patient been a well-to-do person or a young athletic man of 244 pounds, would this have occurred? If we think about the answer to that, it says something very troubling about discrimination. Yet, I think most of us do find this story troubling, grieve for this woman and her family, and hope this is an unusual occurance. There are countless caring men and women who devote their lives each day to help people, working as parametics and EMTs, doctors and nurses.

Sidenote: I hesitated to add a note about this because I didn't want to add to her family's pain, but I think it's an important fact to note for the rest of us. This dear wife and mother had recently lost a massive amount of weight - around 50% of her body weight. Yet, it is unlikely that that weight loss will be considered among the contributing factors to her heart attack. Like countless of other people of all sizes who've similarly died after losing a lot of weight, it will likely be solely blamed on the fact she was fat.

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