Increasingly the jobs we do are sedentary in nature with many of us sitting at a desk eight to ten hours a day. The advent of the personal computer and the growth of the modern cubicle have enabled employers to maximize productivity by virtually eliminating the need for workers to leave their desks. While a productivity gain, this technology-driven inactivity indeed does have physical health consequences, and has environmental health and safety professionals equally concerned about the hazards associated with long hours of sitting as they are with the more traditional employee safety challenges.
In fact, according the World Health Organization (WHO), physical inactivity is the fourth-leading risk factor for global mortality, causing an estimated 3.2 million deaths annually worldwide. It ranks behind high blood pressure, tobacco use and elevated blood glucose levels and ahead of both obesity and high cholesterol. Furthermore, EHS Today cites numerous studies and reports in recent years that have documented the negative, long-term health consequences of prolonged inactivity, pointing out that it’s the responsibility of environment, health and safety professionals to determine whether they have workers at risk. If they do, they should develop a strategy to protect the long-term health of those employees.
What the Research Finds
Research shows that there is a correlation between physical inactivity and a host of negative health consequences. There are links to the obvious – such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure – as well as other maladies such as cancers and mental illnesses that aren’t so obvious. Tom Rath, author of Eat Move Sleep, states, “Sitting is the most underrated health-threat of modern time. Researchers found that sitting more than six hours in a day will greatly increase your risk of an early death.”
Why is this? The nature of the human body is to be active and moving during the vast majority of the day. When the human body is up and about, the metabolism is optimized, which keeps our systems operating at peak efficiency. When the balance of the day moves toward inactivity, the body begins to work against its molecular nature. Remaining seated for too long can then trigger a plethora of adverse health consequences including coronary artery disease. The study, “Sedentary Behavior is Associated with Coronary Artery Calcification in the Dallas Heart Study,” analyzed heart scans and physical activity records of more than 2,000 adults living in Dallas. The research found that each hour of sedentary time per day on average was associated with a 14% increase in coronary artery calcification. Coronary artery calcification is a marker of subclinical heart disease that can increase the risk of a heart attack. Moreover, the data found no association between coronary artery calcification and the amount of exercise a person does.
As we already know, prolonged periods of sitting can also lead to back and hip issues. According to Dr. Jennifer Hess, who held a seminar last year sponsored by the National Institute for Occupational Safety on the implications of sedentary work, prolonged sitting can lead to muscle asymmetries. Dr. Hess said that in individuals who are sitting for 40 hours a week, their buttock muscles become weakened which in turn forces other muscles to overcompensate. The muscles of the back often are forced to work overtime to make up for the weak buttock muscles, resulting in back injuries that manifest themselves while doing normal, everyday tasks. Dr. Hess also noted that weakened buttock muscles can create inefficient muscle control at the top of the front of the leg leading to an increased likelihood for hip injuries. In fact, according to the American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS) between 2000 and 2009, there was a 123% increase in hip replacements in individuals between 45-64 years old. Dr. Hess said that sedentary work is a factor in this dramatic increase.
What to Do
It’s important for employers to understand the implications that a sedentary workplace has on the productivity of employees and the potential for Workers’ Compensation claims. Overexertion is found to be a leading cause of workplace injuries and comp claims. Sitting is among the factors contributing to overexertion.
Following are a couple of suggestions as outlined in EHS Today, courtesy of Cornell University:
- Sit using a height-adjustable, downward titling keyboard tray for the best work posture, then every 20 minutes stand for eight minutes and move for two minutes. The exact time spent isn’t critical but about every 20-30 minutes, take a posture break and stand and move for a couple of minutes. Simply standing is insufficient.
- Movement is important to get blood circulation through the muscles. Research shows that you don’t need to do vigorous exercise to get the benefits, just walking around is sufficient. Build in a pattern of creating greater movement variety in the workplace (e.g. walk to a printer, water fountain, stand for a meeting, take the stairs, walk around the floor, park a bit further away from the building each day).
If possible and depending on the company’s financial resources, provide standing workstations. Be aware, however, that standing for prolonged periods also has negative health consequences. Therefore some form of sit/stand configuration is ideal.
Caitlin Morgan provides companies with Workers’ Compensation insurance solutions and can help you secure a program that fits your clients’ needs. For more information about our comp products, please contact us at 877.226.1027.