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November 15, 2017

Sitting too much can cause serious health problems. So should employers be liable?

There’s a good chance you’re reading this while sitting behind a desk somewhere during your workday. If you’re like the majority of American workers, you’ve been sedentary – and will continue to be – for much of the day.

Despite how common it is for workers to sit for much of their time on their jobs, many studies have pointed to the blatant health threats induced by too much sitting – it’s even been linked to early death, as well as increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat, and cholesterol problems.

So researchers from Drexel University posed the question: Should businesses be held liable for health problems caused to employees in sedentary workplaces?

Their findings: yes.

Researchers looked at the potential worker’s compensation claims in sedentary environments across several states, finding employers will be more likely to create healthier work environments if they're held accountable for workers' claims.

In an upcoming paper for Lewis and Clark Law Review, study authors Natalie Pederson, a Drexel LeBow College of Business professor and JD, and Lisa Eisenberg, a Drexel Law School alum and JD, look at the medical problems of sedentary workplaces and the structure of liability in the United States for workplace injuries.

“Increases in technology have only exacerbated an already dire situation, leaving a large portion of the American workforce sitting for most of the workday,” Pedersen said in a statement.

The authors highlight regions and businesses that have taken the right steps toward correcting the health threats of sedentary offices. In Denmark, for example, it is now legally required to give employees the option of a standing desk. North American employers haven't exactly gotten that progressive yet, but the report notes many government and state campaigns are pushing for healthier workplace practices.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has outlined the benefits of implementing those health-conscious programs and how they are linked to lower healthcare costs and absenteeism rates, as well as increased morale and productivity.

The study points out a couple companies who seem to be on the right track.

American Express, for example, offers free health coaching and nurse hotlines, while Zappos has implemented “Recess Tuesdays” to get employees moving.

Of course, claiming your workplace responsible for a sedentary-induced health problem isn’t exactly simple. Many such claims were rejected in most of the unusual exertion or special rules jurisdictions, the authors found.

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

Additionally, authors said, employers should note the impact of sedentary workplaces as attempted reforms to insurance premiums continue to spark national debate.

"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 workplace design as necessary in order to avoid liability," Pedersen said.

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