A study by researchers at the University of Toronto, which analyzed 47 other studies on sedentary behavior and was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 20151, claimed that sitting too much increases our chances of getting diseases or dying early. This includes increasing the chances of death from cardiovascular issues, from cancer and chronic conditions such as Type 2 diabetes. And the World Health Organization claims that physical inactivity “has been identified as the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality causing an estimated 3.2 million deaths globally.”2 There are many more studies like this – one or more seems to come out every month these days.
So, with the negative health consequences of sitting all day seemingly well known, one question that comes to mind is “should people be sitting all day at work like a lot of us probably do?” And another question that comes to mind is “what is the employer’s responsibility and/or liability risk?”
OSHA has no specific standard that applies to this risk. You could argue – and I would – that it’s an ergonomic hazard. But again, OSHA has no ergonomic standard. They DO have industry-specific ergonomic guidelines, but none cover this hazard. And they do say on their web site that “OSHA will cite for ergonomic hazards under the General Duty Clause or issue ergonomic hazard letters where appropriate as part of its overall enforcement program.”
However, it seems unlikely that OSHA would inspect, enforce or cite for this kind of issue. In fact, we ran the question past Ergonomist Rick Goggins, who’s with the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries (Rick is a technical advisor to both consultation and compliance staff and is not part of compliance with DOSH, Washington’s state plan for OSHA). Here’s what he had to say when asked about the issue:
“We’re glad that the medical community and the popular media have brought more attention to the issues around prolonged sitting. I don’t see this becoming an enforcement issue for us. We have limited inspection resources and more pressing hazards to deal with. Instead, we’ve been raising awareness about prolonged sitting, not just the potential health hazards, but also some strategies for increasing movement at work. Workstations that allow you to alternate between sitting and standing are helpful, but you also need to consider designing jobs to give people the freedom to walk around more.”
Given all that, what are your opinions? Are you convinced by the science showing negative health consequences associated with sedentary working? Do you think employers have a responsibility to inform workers of this hazard and to provide some solutions, such as sit/stand desks or jobs and workstations designed to decrease inactivity? And can you ever see a time when OSHA covers this in an industry ergonomics guideline or cites an employer for issues related to worker inactivity through the general duty clause?
And finally, what do you think is the best way to address this issue?