Health Care and Manufacturing

Desk jobs: among the most dangerous in America?

Sedentary employees are prone to greater health risks.

May 9, 2014
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Though desk jobs aren’t likely to be found on a list of the most dangerous jobs in America, they probably should be.

According to the study, “Reducing Occupational Sitting Time and Improving Worker Health: The Take-a-Stand Project, 2011,” prolonged sitting time is associated with premature mortality, chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer, metabolic syndrome and obesity.

“The issues really stem from what we call ‘static muscle contraction,’” said Kevin Butler, senior ergonomist for Steelcase's turnstone brand. “Static muscle contraction is what happens when we are sitting and not moving.”

Butler said sedentary workers — those doing a lot of sitting all day — need to get up and move in order to reduce their likelihood of the negative health consequences listed above, as well as others.

“The three most prominent risk factors sedentary workers regularly face are awkward posture, duration and repetition,” he noted.

All of which can negatively impact wellness in one way or another.

While ergonomic design has done a lot to improve worker safety and wellness, often people aren’t using the tools correctly.

“There is something that we call ‘neutral posture,’” Butler said. “It is essentially the safest position to be in as it relates to ergonomics. The reason is because it’s where our body is at its greatest biomechanical advantage or in the right spot to perform the easiest.”

People with desk jobs often hear the advice “sit up straight,” but Butler said it isn’t all that helpful.

“They’ll sit up straight, but they will sit up on the edge of their chair,” he said. “What they are actually doing is they are sitting in alignment but they are asking their body to basically do everything as it relates to holding them upright. They aren’t asking the chair to take on any of the responsibility.”

But even sitting correctly with the proper support won’t eliminate health risks. To do that, a worker has to leave his or her desk several times throughout the day.

According to the study, breaks in prolonged sitting time are correlated with beneficial metabolic profiles, suggesting that frequent breaks in sedentary activity may explain lower health risk related to waist circumference, body mass index, triglyceride levels and two-hour plasma glucose levels.

“Unlocking your knees, switching it up, changing postures — all of those kind of get wrapped up into the same conversation, and that is ‘just move,’” Butler said.

Butler isn’t letting people hide behind ignorance either.

“It’s kind of the biggest insult because we know the most about physical ergonomics and about what we need to do, but companies and individuals really don’t do enough. We are sitting on the winning lottery ticket, but we aren’t cashing it in,” he said.

Unfortunately, for many of those people who sit for eight or more hours at work, it leads to even more sitting at home.

“What really gets scary is when you look at all the chances to be sedentary — commuting to work, riding a train, watching TV — the number of hours is something like 14 to 18 a day. It’s really bad,” Butler said.

“You would think people that have a lot of sedentariness during work hours would be itching to get out and go and move and exercise. In reality, people are actually more sedentary outside of work when they are more sedentary in work.”

Even hitting the gym several nights a week won’t make up for hours of unbroken sitting during the workday.

Butler said workers and employers need to take the issue of sitting all day seriously.

He said employers should create a culture that encourages short breaks for movement throughout the day. There are also tools companies can implement to help workers get up and move while still working, including standing desks and walk stations, also called treadmill desks.

He did caution that standing desks aren’t a solution in and of themselves. The desk has to be ergonomically correct for the user, and he or she needs to switch back and forth throughout the day between the standing desk and a regular desk to gain the benefits.

“For a lot of people, the keyboard is either too high or too low for resting elbow height,” he said. “As soon as you shrug a shoulder or take the elbow away from the midline of the body … in other words, ‘the chicken wing,’ you are no longer in a neutral posture.

“The other facet (to using a stand-up desk) is how long is she standing? If she’s standing all day, she’s opening herself up to risk because our bodies begin to support themselves differently when sitting than standing. After a certain amount of time there may be, depending on her posture, additional spinal force.

“That’s why when people are at a checkout counter, you see those anti-fatigue mats on the floor. Employers know there are all types of risks (to employees) because they have to stand all day.”

Butler said exchanging 100 percent butt time with 100 percent standing time isn’t the way to go.

“The early research and word out of academia is that the answer may be in the number of transitions that occur — how many times we actually go from standing to sitting. When you go from a sit to a stand, essentially what you are doing is a squat.”

Treadmill workstations are another solution that Butler said are great but only if implemented correctly. He noted that the point of a treadmill desk station is not to work up a sweat.

“We are very specific about how fast you should go and about safety and what type of activities we should do when we are on one of these,” he said.

Steelcase is one of several companies that have developed treadmill workstations. It has branded its treadmill workstation as a “walk station” in a deliberate move to help employers and employees see them as a walking opportunity rather than a run.

Butler said the Steelcase walk station includes enhanced safety features and an integrated desk with an adjustable ergonomic design.

“We are seeing an amazing surge in requests for Steelcase walk stations,” he said. “You don’t buy one for everyone. You buy one for a floor or for an organization.

“We see some companies do things like a cardio conference room, and put maybe four in a room facing each other and then schedule their meetings in there and have a walking meeting. The biggest implementation I’ve seen is 12 in one room.”

Butler said companies are responsible for creating a culture that encourages movement in the office space, and employees need to take responsibility for getting up and moving throughout the day.

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