Both Feet on The Ground: The Risks of Occupational Standing
In the context of occupational health, standing is often framed as something employees aren’t getting enough of. This applies largely to sedentary work environments, where standing desks have become a popular intervention to get workers out of their seats and mitigate the physical effects of sitting. That’s not to deny the benefits of standing—it allows for physical freedom and greater mobility. And compared with the debilitating effects of slips, trips, and falls in the workplace, standing for long hours at a time seems a mild risk at best. However, the evidence shows that for industrial workers, prolonged standing can be equally as harmful as prolonged sitting.
Cornell ergonomics researchers have estimated that standing requires 20% more energy than sitting; additional studies show that five or more hours of standing, even with short rest breaks, causes significant muscle fatigue. Consequently, employees who are required to spend most of the day on their feet—from assembly line workers and machine operators to retail cashiers—face a unique set of health risks, which include:
- Inhibited blood flow to lower limbs, which causes swelling or circulatory issues in the feet and even varicose veins
- Joint compression in hips, knees, ankles, and feet; may cause pain or difficulty walking, particularly for aging workers
- Worsening of existing heart problems such as atherosclerosis
- Back pain and musculoskeletal disorders
- Physical and psychological fatigue
The risks of prolonged standing also pose a threat to a company’s bottom line. Although prolonged sitting is more commonly associated with decreased productivity, the same effect can be seen from a lack of opportunities to sit. Spending over 50% of the work day standing often results in both physical and psychological fatigue, which then diminishes employee alertness and task performance. The consequences also extend to the long-term when evaluating the musculoskeletal effects of prolonged standing. Musculoskeletal disorders remain one of the most prevalent causes of lost work days, and can become incredibly costly for employers through worker’s compensation, medical expenses, and lost productivity.
Opportunities for intervention
Standing isn’t always an inevitable part of the job—when possible, employers should look to ergonomic or engineering solutions that allow the same tasks to be completed without disrupting productivity. Although common in industrial workplaces, concrete is one of the worst surfaces for prolonged standing. Shock-absorbing floor materials such as rubber, cork, or wood are ideal for workers, but may not be practical or cost-effective for some companies to install. That’s where PPE comes in: providing footwear with shock-absorbent insoles can also effectively mitigate the strain of prolonged standing. Another solution is to provide workstations that can be adjusted in height to fit each worker.
In addition to mitigating risks in the work environment, safety and health leaders can also introduce opportunities for more frequent rest breaks. Ergonomists recommend allowing employees to change positions throughout the day to reduce the strain on muscles and improve blood flow. In terms of the work-rest schedule, microbreaks help the body recover from fatigue most efficiently; for example, several 5-minute breaks would be more beneficial than a single 15-minute break. Engaging in low-intensity exercise is also a proven way to counter the effects of prolonged standing and repetitive stress. Several studies show that exercise interventions help workers reduce low back pain while standing, as well as prepare the body for physically demanding job tasks.
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