The Risks of Sitting

Desk Job Dangers

Programs to decrease prolonged sitting during the day could reduce workers' comp claims.
By: | January 27, 2014 • 6 min read

When we think about dangerous working conditions and risk management, our thoughts are most likely drawn to construction sites, asbestos removal, dealing with nuclear waste, or fishing in the Bering Sea. For the owners of companies and corporations that do this kind of work, managing the risk inherent in the job is essential to having a successful and profitable business.

But the majority of Americans do not work in those traditionally dangerous jobs. In fact, 86 percent of all Americans today work in some type of office setting, where they sit at a desk for up to 40 hours a week.

People in these jobs typically feel very safe at work. If you asked them the most dangerous or hazardous part of their day, they would probably say their commute to work — not something that happens within the safe four walls of their office. However, over the last few years, research has shown us that simply sitting at a desk is one of the most hazardous things a person can do to his or her body.

As a chiropractor, I have seen firsthand the ravaging effects prolonged sitting has on people’s bodies. The majority of my patients today are suffering from some form of a repetitive strain injury. Most of the neck, back, and wrist pain we see in this country today is likely a result of prolonged sitting.

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We know that musculoskeletal strains are the No. 1 and fastest growing class of workers’ compensation injury, and that is despite the fact that the numbers are still widely underreported. The true impact that a sedentary work style has on our bodies and our bottom line has yet to be seen.

But they are ways to mitigate the risks associated with what used to be thought of as sunny desk jobs.

What Happens to My Body When I Sit?

Repetitive Strain Injuries, or RSIs, occur when the body suffers repeated micro-traumas due to undue force or strain on the musculoskeletal system. Sitting for too long with poor posture is the most common cause. And unfortunately, treatment for RSIs is complicated for several reasons:

• Those affected do not always know the source of their pain, and diagnosis can take months or even years. This causes escalating expense and time lost from work.

• Once an injury is treated, the worker often goes right back to the behavior that created the injury in the first place.

• These injuries take years to develop, and often years to rehabilitate.

Because the number of RSIs of the neck and back are underreported, I often tell employers to look at the number of carpal tunnel claims they have. If that number is high, it is very likely that their workers are also suffering from an assortment of other injuries as well.

Another risk for employees who sit for long hours each week is deconditioning syndrome — even when the worker’s posture is perfect and ergonomic devices are being used.

Bodies are made to move. And without movement, the musculoskeletal system gets weak and stiff. The danger of deconditioning syndrome is that an unfit body is more likely to be injured doing a simple task such as gardening or playing tennis.

If your company has a large number of lower back pain/injury claims in your workers’ compensation or disability funnel, deconditioning syndrome may be to blame.  Not only does this condition make it much more likely for an employee to suffer an injury, but it also makes rehabilitation of that injury a much longer more arduous process. A healthy and fit body heals much quicker.

Obesity and chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer, are also associated with prolonged sitting. Not only are these diseases dangerous and costly in their own right, but those who are chronically sick have a much harder time recovering from injuries. Obese people in particular are more likely to be injured and to lose more time from work once an injury occurs.

The costs of injuries and diseases related to long hours sitting are difficult to quantify. Some reports have calculated the cost at billions of dollars a year in workers’ compensation and disability claims, but that number is only a portion of the full amount companies are spending on injured office employees.

Like other jobs that have an inherent risk for their workers, steps must be taken to protect office workers from the dangers of their jobs and corporations from footing the bill.

What Do We Do About It?

Just like a construction company gives out hard hats to their workers, or a doctor wears latex gloves, there are simple things we can offer employers to keep their employees safe from the dangers of prolonged sitting.

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Managing the risks associated with prolonged sitting has two necessary elements: education and prevention.

One of the biggest problems associated with prolonged sitting injuries is their misdiagnosis. Once a person is afflicted with a repetitive strain injury, a company can cut down on the costs associated with treatment if a proper diagnosis is reached quickly.

Often injured workers submit to unnecessary and expensive diagnostic testing like MRI, X-ray, and EMGs, and are prescribed a myriad of medications, including heavy duty pain killers.

If a worker is suffering from an RSI, they should seek help from a chiropractor, masseuse, or physical therapist, along with seeing their primary care physician for short term anti-inflammatory therapy.

To prevent injuries, employers must consider ways to reduce exposure to the risk. Quite simply, have them sit less. There are many options for employers today, including ergonomic devices, standing desks, other alternative workstations, and my personal recommendation, a micro-break system.

Micro-break systems get people moving once an hour, reducing their sitting time while increasing their overall productivity and energy levels. Implementing one of these systems reduces your exposure to the risk of prolonged sitting for years to come.

For many years now, employers have been trying to mitigate the costs associated with sedentary workers through wellness programs, but nearly all such programs look to individual behaviors as the cause of these conditions.

Recognizing that many injuries and illnesses afflicting workers today are a result of the job itself offers employers an opportunity to apply a risk management model to reducing health care costs. Such a model may be more successful at creating a lasting change because they change the job, not the person doing it.

The timing couldn’t be better. With the constant rise in health care costs, the crippling number of Americans addicted to prescription pain killers, and the growing burden on employers to create healthier work environments, employers need to enact change and gain control over rising costs.

Addressing the hazards of the modern American workplace — where the very chair employees sit in poses significant long-term health risks — is a win-win for everyone.

Gregory Soltanoff, D.C., is a musculoskeletal and workplace injury specialist and creator of Voom, a micro-break corporate wellness program. He can be reached at [email protected]