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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Now, to the price of obesity in the workplace. Employers end up paying between one and $6,000 in added cost for each obese employee per year. And that figure rises along with a worker's body mass index. Studies estimate the total cost of obesity to U.S. employers, including lost productivity, at $73 billion a year.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports now on the many ways businesses feel the impact of obesity.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: In the middle of a sprawling tech trade show in Washington, D.C., tucked down an aisle, is a display of office chairs.

PETE GAFFNEY: What you're looking at here is our big and tall chair. You can see the large seat pan.

LUDDEN: Pete Gaffney is with Ergogenesis, known for this line of Bodybilt chairs.

GAFFNEY: It's got a nice waterfall front on it, so that it doesn't have any pressure points.

LUDDEN: So, can I try a seat here?

GAFFNEY: Sure, by all means.

LUDDEN: There is plenty of room for me and my two big bags. Gaffney says the big and tall chair supports up to 500 pounds, but it's not actually meant for someone who weighs that much.

GAFFNEY: If someone were to weigh 430 pounds, they'd be too large for that seat pan. So we had to move to a bariatric seat, a very wide seat.

LUDDEN: That came on market two years ago, discount price $1,300, able to hold up to 600 pounds. And to even Gaffney's surprise, it's selling. He gets two to three requests a month.

GAFFNEY: A certain government agency in town actually purchased 645 of these chairs, for nationwide. Tremendous amount of demand.

LUDDEN: There is no doubt, from cubicle farms to auto factories, accommodating larger and heavier employees has become a fact of life. Managers tell NPR about having to buy company pick-up trucks, even though compact cars would suit the job. About installing sturdier toilets when wall-mounted ones collapse. Even remodeling, to expand the space between a front desk and the wall. All this costs extra, though it's nothing compared to obesity's impact on health care.

STEVE MORGENSTERN: High blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol issues.

LUDDEN: Steve Morgenstern manages health and welfare plans for the Dow Chemical Company, based in Michigan.

MORGENSTERN: Arthritis, knee replacements, hip replacements. Many things can come from obesity. So, absolutely that impacts our trend.

LUDDEN: Studies estimate some 10 percent of U.S. corporate health care costs are due to obesity and its complications. For a large company like Dow, that means tens of millions of dollars a year, plus lost productivity. Not just from doctor's appointments and sick days, but also research suggests obese workers are simply less efficient on the job.

AVI DOR: We will all benefit from solving this problem.

LUDDEN: Avi Dor of George Washington University says more and more businesses are trying to do just that. Even as they've slashed other benefits in the recession, large companies, at least, have kept their gym subsidies and wellness programs, and others are adding them. Dor says companies see promoting wellness as a financial imperative.

DOR: They recognize that there are so many potentially highly productive workers who happen to be obese, highly skilled workers in some cases, that they really want to address this problem, to tackle this problem head on.

LUDDEN: Still, it's a delicate issue, one many managers say they try not to bring up.

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LUDDEN: At the big and tall chair display, Pete Gaffney says managers do no favors by ignoring the issue. When obese people squeeze into regular chairs, he says, it can lead to impaired circulation, sciatica, hip displacement. He knows it's awkward, but Gaffney's perfected the sensitive sales pitch.

GAFFNEY: I'll kid around with the ladies sometimes. They'll say, well, that's too big for me. It's too wide. I'll say look, when you go home, everybody likes to get into a nice pair of comfortable jeans. Just consider the few extra inches as a nice comfortable pair of jeans. You'll thank me.

LUDDEN: And, he says, they do.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

BLOCK: And tomorrow, Jennifer reports on one company's efforts to help employees lose weight.

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