If sitting is the new smoking, should employers be held liable?

November 14, 2017 by Niki Gianakaris, Drexel University
Credit: Drexel University

Doctors have warned us for years about the health risks associated with sitting too much. Researchers have linked sitting for long periods of time to a number of health issues, including increased high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat and cholesterol. They also warn that prolonged sitting increases the risk of cardiovascular problems and cancer. What does this mean for organizations whose employees end up sitting for at least eight hours a day? Should they be held liable for harms caused to employees in sedentary workplaces?

After an analysis of potential workers' compensation claims in sedentary environments across several states, Drexel University's Natalie Pedersen, JD, an assistant professor of legal studies in the LeBow College of Business, and Lisa Eisenberg, JD, a graduate of the Thomas R. Kline School of Law and current judicial clerk, claim employers should be held accountable because it will force them to reduce such harms in their work environments.

Pedersen and Eisenberg coauthored a paper that is forthcoming in the Lewis and Clark Law Review. Their analysis looked at the issues of sitting in the workplace and accompanying medical problems, and examined the structure of liability in the United States for workplace injury.

"As our workplaces have become more sedentary, our risk of adverse outcomes has increased," said Pedersen. "Increases in technology have only exacerbated an already dire situation leaving a large portion of the American workforce sitting for most of the workday."

The authors looked at the practices of government entities and private companies that encourage healthier lifestyles among their employees. Denmark became the first country in 2014 to legally require employers to give workers the option of having a standing desk. While not going that far, Australia and Canada have taken on proactive campaigns to encourage employers to create healthier work environments. In the United States, the federal government and many states have focused on encouraging organizations to adopt healthy workplace practices and institute employee wellness programs. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and state occupational health administrations emphasize how beneficial such programs can be for employers due to the resulting reductions in and absenteeism as well as improved morale and productivity.

American Express, for example, offers a program that provides free health coaching, screening, assessment and nurse hotlines to employees while ConAgra gives employees a bonus health savings contribution for participating in health assessment. These efforts are designed to encourage employees to adopt healthy lifestyles but not force them to do so.

"While such programs are somewhat beneficial to an employee's health and well-being, they don't target the problem of inactivity at work," said Pedersen.

Some companies have taken things further and are experimenting with how to get employees moving while at the workplace. Even simple things could force an to move. Telenor, a Norwegian telecommunications company, reduced the number of coffee stations around the office to make employees move when in need of caffeine. At Zappos, an online apparel shop, employees are treated to "Recess Tuesdays" where playground toys are placed on the office's outdoor plaza and employees gather to play tetherball, volleyball, basketball and engage in other activities.

"Companies who are adopting these methods of mobilizing their otherwise sedentary workplaces are certainly ahead of the curve," said Eisenberg. "But what about the companies who are not? Are the setting themselves for potential workers compensation claims?"

"Statutory language generally deems a harm compensable if it arises out of and in course of employment," the authors wrote. "Virtually all jurisdictions also require harm to be accidental, and that the accident can be reasonably traced to a time, place and occasion or cause in order to be compensable."

Establishing that the workplace was a cause of the harm can be a minefield. Sedentary workplace claims were rejected in most of the unusual exertion or special rules jurisdictions, according to the authors, but there have been cases that show courts may be willing to find that claimants have satisfied the requirements.

With the debate continuing to rage and the growing public concern about rising health insurance premiums, the actual impact of sedentary workplaces on medical insurance markets should be closely examined, according to the authors.

"Forcing the employer to incorporate the full cost of employment, including the cost of injury or disease precipitated by a workplace that is designed for sitting for the majority of the day, will incentivize employers to change their design as necessary in order to avoid liability," said Pedersen.

Explore further: Studies suggest resilience training may be a useful primary prevention strategy for employers

Related Stories

Studies suggest resilience training may be a useful primary prevention strategy for employers

October 11, 2017
The American Heart Association (AHA) CEO Roundtable today releases "Resilience in the Workplace," an evidence review report with practical guidance for employers looking to implement resilience training programs. With two-thirds ...

Survey provides new directions for employment of people with disabilities

October 10, 2017
October 10, 2017 - Kessler Foundation released the results of a new national survey that shows that employers are striving to recruit, hire, train, and retain people with disabilities, and reveals areas of opportunity for ...

Unhealthy choices cost company health care plans billions of dollars

December 10, 2015
One out of every four dollars employers pay for health care is tied to unhealthy lifestyle choices or conditions like smoking, stress and obesity, despite the fact that most large employers have workplace wellness programs.

Middle-aged found to be as sedentary as pensioners

June 27, 2017
Most middle-aged office workers now spend as much time sitting down as older pensioners, according to a report.

Proactive office ergonomics can increase job satisfaction and employee retention

September 9, 2014
As the amount of time employees spend at their desks increases, so does musculoskeletal discomfort and other health issues associated with the office environment. Although office ergonomics training programs have been shown ...

Study reveals public resistance toward workplace standing guidelines

February 1, 2017
A new King's College London study reveals significant public resistance and misunderstanding surrounding the UK's first health guidelines on sedentary behaviour at work, which were a response to mounting evidence on the health ...

Recommended for you

Engineered enzyme eliminates nicotine addiction in preclinical tests

October 17, 2018
Oct. 17, 2018—Scientists at Scripps Research have successfully tested a potential new smoking-cessation treatment in rodents.

Self-lubricating latex could boost condom use: study

October 17, 2018
A perpetually unctuous, self-lubricating latex developed by a team of scientists in Boston could boost the use of condoms, they reported Wednesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

How healthy will we be in 2040?

October 17, 2018
A new scientific study of forecasts and alternative scenarios for life expectancy and major causes of death in 2040 shows all countries are likely to experience at least a slight increase in lifespans. In contrast, one scenario ...

Study finds evidence of intergenerational transmission of trauma among ex-POWs from the Civil War

October 16, 2018
A trio of researchers affiliated with the National Bureau of Economic Research has found evidence that suggests men who were traumatized while POWs during the U.S. Civil War transmitted that trauma to their offspring—many ...

Father's nicotine use can cause cognitive problems in children and grandchildren

October 16, 2018
A father's exposure to nicotine may cause cognitive deficits in his children and even grandchildren, according to a study in mice publishing on October 16 in the open-access journal PLOS Biology by Pradeep Bhide of Florida ...

Many supplements contain unapproved, dangerous ingredients: study

October 13, 2018
(HealthDay)—U.S. health officials have issued more than 700 warnings during the last decade about the sale of dietary supplements that contain unapproved and potentially dangerous drug ingredients, new research reveals.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.