Study: Is Sitting the New Smoking? What Does It Mean for Work Comp?

12.06.2017


By Liz Carey

Philadelphia, PA (WorkersCompensation.com) – A new paper out of Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business poses the new question of whether or not employers can be held liable for any injuries sustained while an employee sits at work all day.

For years, doctors have been warning us that sitting is hazardous to our health. Researchers have shown connections between sitting and a number of health issues, like increased high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat and high cholesterol. Sitting can also contribute to cardiovascular problems and cancer.

But as the work world depends more and more on computers, many jobs are now more sedentary, requiring employees to sit for hours a day. The question arises — Should employers be held responsible for employees who develop illnesses related to sedentary work?

Two attorneys recently looked into the situation and found that employers should be held accountable for sedentary work-related problems, if only to force them to reduce the harm from those work environments.

Drexel University’s Natalie Pedersen, an assistant professor of legal studies in the LeBow College of Business, and Lisa Eisenberg, a judicial clerk and graduate of Thomas R. Kline School of Law, found that sitting in the workplace could soon be a legal liability for US businesses.

Their paper “If sitting is the new smoking, should employers be held liable?” soon to be published in the Lewis and Clark Law Review, looked at workers’ compensation claims stemming from sedentary work environments and companies’ liability if they don’t provide adequate accommodations.

"What we were trying to figure out was if there were certain instances where an employer would be liable for those kinds of workers’ compensation claims that might arise from a more sedentary work life,” Pedersen said in an interview with WorkersCompensation.com. “It’s definitely sort of a newer theory. As the consequences of working a sedentary job… come out, I think we’ll see more of this sort of liability.”

In their study of cases, Pedersen said, they found certain maladies are if not caused by sedentary life, they’re at least exacerbated by them.

“The treatment of harms like myocardial infarction, stroke, and pulmonary embolism indicate that sedentary workplace claims would be compensable in usual-exertion jurisdictions, assuming expert medical testimony could satisfactorily establish the work connection,” the report said. “While possible, successful sedentary workplace claims by office workers would be substantially more difficult to establish in unusual exertion jurisdictions. This is simply because it would be difficult to characterize a job as unusually sedentary, except perhaps if a worker worked substantially more hours than the usual office worker.”

“As our workplaces have become more sedentary, our risk of adverse health outcomes has increased,” Pederson told ScienceDaily. “Increases in technology have only exacerbated an already dire situation leaving a large portion of the American workforce sitting for most of the workday.”

And workers are getting tired of sitting. In another study, workers in Germany who spend most of their day sitting at a desk, said they would rather be more active on the job.

Researchers surveyed 614 desk-based workers on how often they sit at work. Respondents said they spend an average of 73 percent of their workdays sitting, but respondents also indicated that they would rather be spending 20 percent less time in their chairs. Additionally, they said they would prefer to be spending about 23 percent of their day walking, and to increase to nearly 16 percent of their time spent standing.

Researchers concluded that future wellness programs should include stand-focused changes like convertible desks, more walking and physical activities to match workers’ desires.

Pederson said there were a number of things employers can do to prevent too much sitting, including: Installing standing desks or treadmill desks, redesigning the workplace to encourage more walking, putting reminders to get up and walk by the elevators, or even something as simple as putting the break room and coffee pots as far away from the main office area as possible.

“One of the things we found in our research was that it’s not enough to just go to the gym for an hour after work,” she said. “You can’t sit down for an eight-hour period and not have some negative health effects.” 

Change, she said, will have to come from a culture shift.

“It’s a change in more than just design. It really needs a shift in mindset,” she said.


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