“Could Sitting at Work Be a Presumptive Workers’ Compensation Claim?”

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April 2017: Workers’ Compensation

Hear me out…. I know what you are thinking, “Really?” “Yes, Really!”.

The reason I propose this question is because of the preponderance of evidence around the health impacts of sitting, our seated work-life style and trends in workers’ compensation.

In workers' compensation, a physician decides the relationship between workplace risk factors and activities and any resulting diseases. So, with the known risk factors of prolonged sitting and its impact on long term health, what's keeping employees from filing claims against an employer who only provides a seated workstation and isn't willing to help reduce the impact by offering a sit to stand workstation. Especially for employees who desire and have the capacity to work alternatively in both postures.

As an example, Elaine is 5’1”, 35 years old and works as an Administrative Assistant at a county organization. When she started working in 1999, she weighed 155 lbs., modestly overweight according to medical guidelines. Over the years, she has sat at the same workstation, in the same chair, working at a computer for about 7 hours/day. At home, her life is sedentary with no children, no husband, just her cat. She doesn’t exercise routinely. Fast forward to 2017 and Elaine now weighs 215 lbs. Her doctor has just told her she has obesity, high blood pressure and is borderline diabetic. Is Elaine’s health a result of the cumulative effects of prolonged sitting and compensable under workers’ compensation?

Obesity as an Occupational Disease

Obesity has been classified as a disease since 2013 by the American Medical Association and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. More than 36.5% of US Adults have obesity. It is a common co-morbidity (having 2 chronic conditions at once) but so often goes unreported as a compensable consequence of work injuries, yet has a profound impact on the cost of the injury and incurred lost time days. The California Workers’ Compensation Institute states claims involving obese workers cost 81.4% higher and average 35 weeks of lost time or 80% more compared to 19 weeks of time loss without obesity.

Health Impacts of Sitting:

It is well documented in the scientific and health literature along within the headlines how devastating prolonged, cumulative sitting can be on our health. On average, Americans sit 13 hours per day, 86% sit all day! The long-term health impacts are a shortened life span, higher heart disease rates, higher risk of diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome (increased blood pressure, elevated cholesterol and excessive mid-body fat), higher cancer risks and neck, shoulder and back musculoskeletal problems.

Brazilian researchers analyzed data from 54 countries linking sitting for more than three hours a day to 3.8 percent of deaths from all causes. By just limiting sitting to less than 3 hours a day is predicted to increase a person’s life expectancy by an average of 2 months.

Sitting is a known health threat and even regular exercise may not be enough to counter the harmful effects of prolonged sitting. The American Journal of Preventive Medicine sites a study regardless of moderate to vigorous physical activity, a modest 10% reduction in sitting time or 30 minutes a day less, could have an immediate impact on our health. Sit even less and our life expectancy increases more!

Workers’ Compensation Compensability and Presumption of Compensability:

In California, a workers’ compensation compensable injury is “any injury sustained by his/her employment arising out of and during employment”. A worker who suffers an on the job aggravation of a non-industrial pre-existing disease or underlying condition has sustained a new injury. In addition, work activities need not be the sole cause of the injury or the primary cause (except psychological injuries).
Many states have workers’ compensation statutes and codes addressing firefighters and police officers giving them presumption of compensability for certain occupational diseases if they contract heart disease or hypertension that results in "partial or total disability or death." Additionally, if a firefighter develops lung disease or certain specific cancers resulting in partial or total disability, that firefighter is given a presumption of compensability that the disease was "suffered in the line of duty."

The presumption of compensability is important, as it allows firefighters and police to more easily receive the benefits and compensation they are entitled to after developing these specific occupational diseases.

With what we know about the impacts of sitting on our health, our rising obesity trends and other occupations already agreeing to presumptiveness, what’s to keep us from making sitting a presumptive compensable claim for the ordinary seated office worker? I suppose time will tell… and case law!

Resources:

WebMD, “To Much Sitting May Shorten Your Life”, 2016
Shulte, Paul, “Work, Obesity, and Occupational Safety and Health”, 2007
Elsevier, “Prolonged Daily Sitting Linked to 3.8% of All-Cause Deaths”, 2016
Levine, James, “Get Up! Why Your Chair is Killing You and What You Can Do About It”, 2014

What Do You Think?

Do you think employers can expect an increase in workers claiming obesity or other health effects (aside from musculoskeletal related) due to prolonged sitting as a compensable work injury? Is this reason enough for employers to invest in new sit to stand workstation furniture and modernize the office to reflect today’s health trends? Let me know what you think by commenting on my blog.






Leave Your Comments

Your Thoughts


Robin M. Nagel, MS, CDMS

This is an interesting approach to scare employers into proactivity! But has an injury or illness actually occurred? This would be vigorously argued.
In the scenario you describe, Elaine would have had to file an injury/illness claim that could conceivably be supported if - and only if, in my opinion - she had documentary evidence of asking for, and being denied alternative means of performing her work, i.e., a sit-stand work station or even a work desk podium; and employer consent (denied) to alternating productive tasks such that she might more freely move about in her work space while remaining productive. This would be one fine example of a hybrid WC injury and FEHA/ADAAA claim in that her requests (again presuming explicit and dated documentation of each, over time) to increase mobility at work were denied, AND her doctor's opinion that this accommodation was/is medically necessary to safeguard her health or prevent disease progression/further illness.
Clarity and documentation of NEEDS EXPRESSED AND IGNORED is (almost) everything - essential job functions loom large here, too! Thanks for a good idea to explore!

Alison Heller-Ono

Elaine's weight gain and other physiological changes could be considered a cumulative effect of prolonged sitting. Similar to the cumulative exposure of working at a keyboard/mouse resulting in tendonitis or other ailments. She may not know what the best remedy is to mediate the health effects by asking for an alternative workstation or the opportunity to move more. An employer's responsibility it to know if there are risk factors or exposures in the workplace potentially leading to injury or illness and to mitigate them responsibly for all employees. Similar to providing MSDS sheets and training on chemical hazards or awareness of ergonomic risk factors such as prolonged sitting. Failure to inform the employee of their risks leaves the employee vulnerable to injury or illness associated with workplace hazards resulting in a possible workers' compensation claim whether presumptive or not.



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