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Combatting workplace fatigue: To sit or not to sit?

Byline: Rachel Michael

To sit or stand? That seems to be the hot question for many employers today, particularly those in the office environment.

While industrial and service employers have long been embroiled in debate and legal action around the ability for employees to sit at work, office employers and even elementary schools are considering removing seated workstations. So what is an employer to do?

There is actually a longer history to this question than current headlines might suggest. Let's begin with the lessons learned from the "lean" movement in U.S. manufacturing. At a time when U.S. workplace injuries overall were declining, automotive and aerospace manufacturers saw a sharp uptick in injuries.

The increase in injuries was later partially attributed to the race to implement lean production techniques without incorporating a sound ergonomics approach. In this case, they didn't assess how human operators would respond to a rigid structure in which most movement or posture changes were viewed as unproductive. Subsequent efforts to achieve lean manufacturing with greater focus on ergonomics resulted in decreased employee injuries while concurrently driving production improvements.

(Photo: Thinkstock)

Change posture throughout the day

Tying this experience to the current discussion around sitting versus standing, it's clear that restricting employees to a static posture isn't good for their health or productivity.

To this end, being able to change your posture throughout the day is a key to injury prevention along with having supported postures if sitting. In a standing workstation, employers need to consider what changes may be required. For example, is there an opportunity to shift weight, rest one leg higher than the other, walk, sit, lean or otherwise change posture?

Similarly, with respect to seated workstations, posture changes are also an option. Ensure that tasks don't require a prolonged static posture, such as leaning or reaching. For office work, make sure employees know how to use adjustments to their chairs. Many office chairs have eight to 16 potential adjustments. Although many users may think these are meant to be adjusted only once and never again, they're actually designed to provide a good fit and to accommodate changes in seating posture throughout the day. Be sure to alert employees about the health benefits of making adjustments and encourage them to integrate frequent adjustments into their daily routine.

Taking an office workstation as an example, employees may start the day in a generally upright seated position. However, during a conference call some employees may release the backrest and recline for a few minutes. They might subsequently walk over to another workstation before sitting back at their desk and locking the backrest in the upright position.

At lunch, workers may stand with colleagues around a bar-height table in the cafeteria before returning to their desks. As an afternoon deadline looms, the workers can adjust the chair to a forward tilt position for a couple hours. Then, as they wrap up the deadline project they can bring the chair back to an upright position. Sometime later, they might unlock the tilt function in the chair, allowing themselves a few minutes to rock in the chair while wrapping up a few email messages and planning evening activities. In this scenario the employee has had multiple posture changes and motion throughout the day.

(Photo: Thinkstock)

Fit the chair to the person

To offer the multiple seating options as described in the previous example, employers need to have a solid standard for seating procurement. With all the marketing around ergonomics and office furniture it can be difficult to know what makes a good chair choice. Those charged with designing or purchasing workstations may want to review the guidelines approved by the American National Standards Institute and published by the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. ANSI/HFES 100-2007 Human Factors Engineering of Computer Workstations provides guidance for the design and installation of computer workstations, including displays, input devices, and furniture that will accommodate a wide variety of users.

Accordingly, when considering seated workstations and chair selection look for these features:

* Seat height adjustment.

* Backrest height adjustment.

* Backrest forward/back adjustment.

* Lumbar adjustment.

* Armrest adjustment (if installed).

* Seat pan depth adjustment.

* Asynchronous tilt.

* Forward tilt.

* Ability to choose a large or small size chair outside of the standard based on employee need.

Selecting the appropriate chair and equipment is only the first step. Employees should understand not only how to use the chair and make adjustments, but also recognize the benefits of changing their posture throughout the day. Consider how and whether you provide this type of training, as well as any ongoing resources for making seated posture adjustments. Unfortunately, even with the most advanced and expensive equipment, many employees are either unaware of or simply afraid to make needed adjustments to their work tools.

(Photo: Thinkstock)

Prolonged standing poses issues

These days it's becoming increasingly common for employees to request a standing workstation because discomfort in the seated workstation. When the fit of the chair and other equipment is addressed, many employees realize their discomfort has been directly related to a poorly fitted seated workstation -- not the result of sitting in and of itself.

From an ergonomics perspective, some employers focus on how to introduce increased movement to seated workstations, while many traditional manufacturing and service jobs continue to combat the effects of prolonged standing. Other options, such as a footrest or leaning stool, can provide great choice for posture changes in standing workstations.

Appropriate footwear, often a health and safety topic in industrial settings, can help in these settings. Discuss how footwear and footrests interact with standing desks and consider making corresponding changes to employee training.

The bottom line is that prolonged static postures, either standing or sitting, could lead to fatigue and discomfort. In both situations, sustainable solutions call for seizing opportunities to encourage and train employees to adjust their posture throughout the workday. These remedies must also take into account the full scope of each individual's activities during the day, in particular sustained time either standing or sitting, as well as the nature of the work performed and the culture of the organization.

Rachel Michael, CPE, a senior consultant in the Ergonomics Practice Group of Aon Global Risk Consulting, is a director and vice president on the Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics and serves on the advisory board of Ergonomics Practice Specialty for the American Society of Safety Engineers. She can be reached at rachel.michael@aon.com.

Related: Do you need Workers' Comp for telecommuting employees?
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Publication:Property and Casualty 360
Date:Nov 24, 2015
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