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]

Risk Management

The Profession

This senior risk manager values his role in helping Varian Medical Systems support research and technologies in the fight against cancer.
By: | September 12, 2017 • 5 min read

R&I: What was your first job?

When I was 15 years old I had a summer job working for the city of Plentywood, mowing grass in the parks and ballfields, emptying garbage cans, hauling waste to the dump, painting crosswalk lines.  A great job for a teenager but I thought getting a college degree and working in an air-conditioned office would be a good plan long term.

R&I: How did you come to work in risk management?

I was enrolled in the University of Montana as a general business student, and I wanted to declare a more specialized major during my sophomore year. I was working for my dad at his insurance agency over the summer, and taking new agent training coursework on property/casualty risks in my spare time, so I had an appreciation for insurance. My dad suggested I research risk management for a career, and I transferred sight unseen to the University of Georgia to enroll in their risk management program. I did an internship as a senior with the risk management department at Sulzer Medica, and they offered me a full time job.

R&I: What could the risk management community be doing a better job of?

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We need to do a better job of saying yes. We tend to want to say no to many risks, but there are upside benefits to some risks. If we initiate a collaborative exercise with the risk owners — people who may have unique knowledge about that particular risk — and include a cross section of people from other corporate functions, you can do an effective job of taking the risk apart to analyze it, figure out a way to manage that exposure, and then reap the upside benefits while reducing the downside exposure. That can be done with new products and new service offerings, when there isn’t coverage available for a risk. It’s asking, is there anything we can do to reduce the risk without transferring it?

R&I: What emerging commercial risk most concerns you?

Cyber liability. There’s so much at stake and the bad guys are getting more resourceful every day. At Varian, our first approach is to try to make our systems and products more resilient, so we’re trying to direct resources to preventing it from happening in the first place. It’s a huge reputation risk if one of our products or systems were compromised, so we want to avoid that at all costs.

We need to do a better job of saying yes. We tend to want to say no to many risks, but there are upside benefits to some risks.

R&I: What insurance carrier do you have the highest opinion of?

I’ve worked with a number of great ones over the years. We’ve enjoyed a great property insurance relationship with Zurich. Their loss control services are very valuable to us. On the umbrella liability side, it’s been great partnering with companies like Swiss Re and Berkley Life Sciences because they’ve put in the time and effort to understand our unique risk exposures.

R&I: How much business do you do direct versus going through a broker?

One hundred percent through a broker. I view our broker as an extension of our risk management team. We benefit from each team member’s respective area of expertise and experience.

R&I: Is the contingent commission controversy overblown?

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I think so. The brokers were kind of villainized by Spitzer. I think it’s fair for brokers and insurers to make a reasonable profit, and if a portion of their profit came from contingent commissions, I’m fine with that. But I do appreciate the transparency and disclosure that came out as a result of the fiasco.

R&I: Are you optimistic about the US economy or pessimistic and why?

David Collins, Senior Manager, Risk Management, Varian Medical Systems Inc.

While we might be doing fine here in the U.S. from an economic perspective, the Middle East is a mess, and we’re living with nuclear threat from North Korea. But hope springs eternal, so I’m cautiously optimistic. I’m hoping saner minds prevail and our leaders throughout the world work together to make things better.

R&I: Who is your mentor and why?

My Dad got me started down the insurance and risk path. I’ve also been fortunate to work for or with a number of University of Georgia alumni who’ve been mentors for me. I’ve worked side by side with Karen Epermanis, Michael Rousseau, and Elisha Finney. And I’ve worked with Daniel Dean in his capacity as a broker.

R&I: What have you accomplished that you are proudest of?

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Raising my kids. I have a 15-year-old and 12-year-old, and they’re making mom and dad proud of the people they’re turning into.

On a professional level, a recent one would be the creation and implementation of our global travel risk program, which was a combined effort between security, travel and risk functions.

We have a huge team of service personnel around the world, traveling to customer sites to do maintenance and repair. We needed a way to track, monitor and communicate with them. We may need to make security arrangements or vet their lodging in some circumstances.

R&I: What do your friends and family think you do?

My 12-year-old son thought my job responsibilities could be summed up as a “professional worrier.” And that’s not too far off.

R&I: What about this work do you find the most fulfilling or rewarding?

Varian’s mission is to focus energy on saving lives. Proper administration of the risk function puts the company in a better position to financially support research that improves products and capabilities, helps to educate health care providers and support cancer care in general. It means more lives saved from a terrible disease. I’m proud to contribute toward that.

When you meet someone whose cancer has been successfully treated with one of our products, it’s a powerful reward.




Katie Siegel is an associate editor at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at [email protected]