Health and Safety
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What should employers know?

By Marnie Downey R.Kin., M.Sc.


Over the last several years, the media has been focusing on how prolonged sitting at work can negatively impact worker’s health.

This has led to an increase in sit-stand workstation designs and employees requesting standing desks. However, research indicates that standing can actually be worse than sitting in some respects. So, what is the truth; and what are employers and employees to do?


What does the research say about prolonged sitting?

Over the years, office work has become increasingly sedentary. We often think the physical activity we do outside of work can help minimize the effects of too much sitting at work. However, research has found that an individual’s physical activity level does not provide the benefit we hope. Independent of physical activity, prolonged sitting has been linked to an increased risk of diabetes, cancer, heart disease and obesity. Significant sedentary time has also been linked premature mortality.

From an ergonomics point of view, prolonged sitting in an improper fitting workstation chair can increase an employee’s risk of developing low back pain. Poor back posture increases the pressure on the intervertebral discs in the spine. Over time, this can lead to wear and tear of the discs, and in some cases, a disc protrusion (or “slipped disc”) can place pressure on the nerves in our back. Refer to the diagram at right to see how different postures affect spinal disc forces.


What does the research say about prolonged standing?

Prolonged standing has been known for a long time to contribute to lower leg and low back discomfort, as well as an increase in overall fatigue. With prolonged standing, blood pools in the lower limbs, which causes an increase in venous pressure. The heart has to work harder to pump this blood from the lower limbs back the heart. This is one reason why it is more fatiguing to stand and this also correlates to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease with prolonged standing at work. However, standing is not all bad. Standing results in lower compressive forces on the spinal discs than does sitting, as shown in the diagram below.


What is the Solution?

With the knowledge that there are risk factors associated with both prolonged sitting and prolonged standing; what are we to do? The key is that we encourage and allow workers to not spend prolonged periods of time in any one posture. Movement is healthy and should be built into job tasks to ensure a healthy work day. Static standing and static sitting should be minimized by changes in posture.

One way to build posture change into an office employee’s day is to provide them with a workstation that can be adjusted for both sitting and standing. Of course, there are other ways to achieve change in posture and not all employees require a sit-stand workstation. Employees that have jobs with varying tasks that allow them to walk and stand throughout their day likely do not require a sit-stand workstation.


What does the CSA Office Ergonomics Standard require?

The Canadian Standards Association (CSA) recently released Z412-17 Office Ergonomics – An Application Standard for Workplace Ergonomics. This was the first major overhaul to the Office Ergonomics standard since 2000. Employers should be familiar with what this Standard says to ensure employees are set up and working in ways to reduce their risk of musculoskeletal disorders. In terms of sitting versus standing at work, this Standard clearly reinforces the need for postural variety throughout the day and seating that allows for changes in posture. Standing and semi-standing are included as recommended postures and the Standard warns against the dangers of both prolonged sitting or standing in one posture.


What type of sit-stand workstation should you choose?

Once the decision has been made to purchase a sit-stand workstation, employers ask questions about how to select the right model. As with most things in life, one size does not fit all. Selecting the right style and model of a sit-stand workstation will depend on the employee’s stature and the type of work that they do. Be sure to measure the employee’s seated and standing elbow height to ensure that the selected model’s keyboard platform/location will adjust to fit the employee’s size. For some desk mounted units, you will need to know the size, number and style of monitors (and/or laptop) to ensure the correct mounting hardware is available for the screens. If employees use a telephone or review paper documents regularly, ensure the unit selected will accommodate these tasks. Ask product suppliers if they can provide a demo unit. Research suggests that there is some novelty to a sit-stand desk and that some employees may decide they prefer to sit after a trial.

Remember that for most employees, sit-stand desks are a “nice to have” and not a “need to have.” There are many other ways to incorporate more movement into our days without buying sit-stand desks for everyone. Consider the following:

  • Use the dynamic tilt function of the chair.
  • Take telephone calls standing when simultaneous computer work is not required.
  • Walk to talk to a colleague rather than sending an email.
  • Use a standing height counter or desk and have standing meetings.
  • Take a couple of minutes to stretch for every 30 minutes of keying/mousing.

Based on this information, everyone should all be getting up and moving throughout the day. How are you going to incorporate movement into your workday?

Marnie Downey R.Kin., M.Sc., is a Certified Canadian Professional Ergonomist (CCPE) and the president of ERGO Inc.



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