Why the Jury Is Out on Sit/Stand Workstations

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Safety professional man in a bright office standing with two computers at his workstation

“This is something that tends to happen within office ergonomics especially,” says Jessica Ellison, M.S., CSP, CPE, principal consultant for BSI EHS Services and Solutions West and operations manager for EHS West. “It’s one of those things where people say, ‘Oh, that person got one of those things that looks really cool, so I must need it too.’”

On top of the way sit/stand workstations spread through the ranks of workers, Ellison says they were also enthusiastically adopted by some employers hoping to attract top talent. By showing employees how much they cared about health and wellness and providing the latest and greatest tools available, they believed high-performing professionals would be more likely to apply for open positions and stick around.

“I think it also took off in such a rapid way because of how the research was presented,” Ellison continues. “A lot of published articles have said sitting is the new smoking. But when you really dive into the facts, the research is very mixed about sit/stand workstations and their positive and negative effects.”

For Fear of the Chair

One of the high-profile reports Ellison references, “Patterns of Sedentary Behavior and Mortality in U.S. Middle-Aged and Older Adults: A National Cohort Study,” was published on October 3, 2017, in the Annals of Internal Medicine and got a great deal of media attention. It concludes that both the volume and accrual of sedentary time are associated with “all-cause mortality.” In other words, among the 7,985 U.S. adults over age 45 that researchers observed, the ones who moved the least over the longest periods of time had the greatest risk for earlier death.

But the assertion that “sitting is the new smoking” has been around much longer. The man credited with the phrase, Dr. James Levine, co-director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative and inventor of the treadmill desk, has been researching and spreading this theory since as early as 2005. He even wrote a book called “Get Up! Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It,” which says that for every hour people spend sitting in their chairs, they lose two hours of our lives.

Standing Skeptics

Not all researchers have gotten on board with this idea over time. One naysaying study, “Occupational Sitting and Health Risks,” was published in the Oct. 2010 issue of the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. The authors sought to review the existing evidence at the time and re-examine the link between sitting in the workplace and employee health risks. They found that the evidence was too shaky to draw definitive conclusions or make recommendations about whether to sit or stand on the job.

Another study, published in The Lancet Physical Activity Series in Sept. 2016, looked at whether exercising after prolonged periods of sitting could counteract any negative health effects. Titled “Does physical activity attenuate, or even eliminate, the detrimental association of sitting time with mortality? A harmonized meta-analysis of data from more than 1 million men and women,” the research included information from 16 other studies and concluded that high levels of moderate-intensity physical activity seem to eliminate the risk of earlier death associated with long sitting times.

Next Posture, Best Posture

According to Andy Ackerson, M.S., CSP, CIH, a workers’ compensation specialist at Chubb who focuses primarily on worker safety and health, the culture war between sitters and standers has created a false dichotomy. What researchers have found most recently, he says, is that motion – getting up, walking around and sitting down – is the most important thing for employee wellness. It speaks to a concept that has been present in ergonomics for years: The next posture the body assumes will be the best posture for that body.

“Really, any static posture, whether you’re standing or sitting, isn’t good for a person,” Ackerson says. “That is something that’s important to understand when you’re considering whether a sit/stand workstation is good for you or good for your employees. If you’re providing a standing option, you still need an ergonomically designed sitting option as well.”

Sit/stand workstations allow for the possibility of increased movement, but if workers only use them for one posture each day, they might not get the full benefits and could even be putting their safety and health in jeopardy. The fact is, researchers don’t agree on their usefulness or their dangers. And for employers hoping to get a return on their investment, either through increased productivity or retention, sit/stand workstations might not deliver right away.

“A sit/stand workstation isn’t a cure-all for every ailment that’s out there,” Ellison says. “People tend to think it’s going to solve everything from wrist pain to back pain. Finding more of a movement balance in your day would probably carry more benefits than purchasing a new piece of equipment.”

Every Workplace is Unique

If, like many safety practitioners, you’ve seen a recent uptick in the number of requests for sit/stand workstations at your company, you might be struggling with how to move forward. After all, if employees want them, there’s money in the budget, they don’t pose an immediate risk and they could be a healthier alternative, then why not?

But some occupational safety and health professionals are concerned about the longer-term impact on workers and their bottom line. That’s why Ellison and Ackerson will be facilitating Safety 2018 Key Issue Collaboration Session 723, “Sit vs. Stand: Ergonomics Research and Guidelines,” on Wednesday, June 6 from 7:45 a.m. to 9 a.m.

“This is going to be a great opportunity for attendees with different experiences to learn from each other,” Ackerson says. “People will walk away with practical solutions – a little bit of theory, but also practical solutions that they can introduce more readily and be able to make the argument back at their businesses about whether they should or shouldn’t look for sit/stand options.”

Andy Ackerson, M.S., CSP, CIH, CFPS, ARM, is a workers’ compensation specialist with Chubb, one of the world’s largest property and casualty insurers by market capitalization. He holds a master’s and a bachelor’s degree in safety sciences from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Andy is also the ergonomics coordinator for Chubb’s Mid-Atlantic region focusing on advanced customer engagement, service and staff development. Andy is a member of the ASSE Chesapeake Chapter and the ASSE Ergonomics Practice Specialty

Jessica Ellison, M.S., CPE, CSP, is the EHS West operations manager and principal consultant for BSI EHS Services and Solutions (West). She holds a master's degree in biomedical engineering from UC Davis and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Michigan State University. Jessica is the assistant administrator for the ASSE Ergonomics Practice Specialty and past president of the San Francisco Chapter. She was the 2013-14 Safety Professional of the Year for the ASSE Ergonomics Practice Specialty.

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