Doctors have warned us
for years about the health risks associated with sitting too much. Researchers
have linked sitting for long periods of time to a number of health issues,
including increased high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat and cholesterol.
They also warn that prolonged sitting increases the risk of cardiovascular
problems and cancer. What does this mean for organizations whose employees end
up sitting for at least eight hours a day? Should they be held liable for harms
caused to employees in sedentary workplaces?
After an analysis of
potential workers' compensation claims in sedentary environments across several
states, Drexel University's Natalie Pedersen, JD, an assistant professor of
legal studies in the LeBow College of Business, and Lisa Eisenberg, JD, a
graduate of the Thomas R. Kline School of Law and current judicial clerk, claim
employers should be held accountable because it will force them to reduce such
harms in their work environments.
Pedersen and Eisenberg
coauthored a paper that is forthcoming in the Lewis and Clark Law Review.
Their analysis looked at the issues of sitting in the workplace and
accompanying medical problems, and examined the structure of liability in the
United States for workplace injury.
"As our workplaces
have become more sedentary, our risk of adverse health outcomes has
increased," said Pedersen. "Increases in technology have only
exacerbated an already dire situation leaving a large portion of the American
workforce sitting for most of the workday."
The authors looked at
the practices of government entities and private companies that encourage
healthier lifestyles among their employees. Denmark became the first country in
2014 to legally require employers to give workers the option of having a standing
desk. While not going that far, Australia and Canada have taken on proactive
campaigns to encourage employers to create healthier work environments. In the
United States, the federal government and many states have focused on
encouraging organizations to adopt healthy workplace practices and institute
employee wellness programs. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and
Health and state occupational health administrations emphasize how beneficial
such programs can be for employers due to the resulting reductions in health
care costs and absenteeism as well as improved morale and productivity.
American Express, for
example, offers a program that provides free health coaching, screening,
assessment and nurse hotlines to employees while ConAgra gives employees a
bonus health savings contribution for participating in health assessment. These
efforts are designed to encourage employees to adopt healthy lifestyles but not
force them to do so.
programs are somewhat beneficial to an employee's health and well-being, they
don't target the problem of inactivity at work," said Pedersen.
Some companies have
taken things further and are experimenting with how to get employees moving
while at the workplace. Even simple things could force an employee to move.
Telenor, a Norwegian telecommunications company, reduced the number of coffee
stations around the office to make employees move when in need of caffeine. At
Zappos, an online apparel shop, employees are treated to "Recess Tuesdays"
where playground toys are placed on the office's outdoor plaza and employees
gather to play tetherball, volleyball, basketball and engage in other
"Companies who are
adopting these methods of mobilizing their otherwise sedentary workplaces are
certainly ahead of the curve," said Eisenberg. "But what about the
companies who are not? Are the setting themselves for potential workers
generally deems a harm compensable if it arises out of and in course of
employment," the authors wrote. "Virtually all jurisdictions also
require harm to be accidental, and that the accident can be reasonably traced
to a time, place and occasion or cause in order to be compensable."
Establishing that the
workplace was a cause of the harm can be a minefield. Sedentary workplace
claims were rejected in most of the unusual exertion or special rules
jurisdictions, according to the authors, but there have been cases that show
courts may be willing to find that claimants have satisfied the requirements.
With the national health
care debate continuing to rage and the growing public concern about rising
health insurance premiums, the actual impact of sedentary workplaces on medical
insurance markets should be closely examined, according to the authors.
employer to incorporate the full cost of employment, including the cost of
injury or disease precipitated by a workplace that is designed for sitting for
the majority of the day, will incentivize employers to change their workplace
design as necessary in order to avoid liability," said Pedersen.
Source: Drexel University / Science Daily