If you’re a plant operator, truck driver or even a project supervisor, it’s not uncommon to spend as much as eight hours per day in a seated position when performing your duties.
Arguably, this is an unavoidable element of what you do. However, it is something that needs careful consideration according to work health and safety experts.
A recent study conducted here in Australia has found that prolonged periods of time spent in the seated position can be detrimental to your health and wellbeing. That’s the message that Safe Work Australia CEO Michelle Baxter made in reference to a recently released publication titled Sedentary Work – Evidence of an emergent work health and safety issue. The word Sedentary is taken from the Latin word Sedere, which means “to sit”. Sedentary Work therefore involves tasks that require the worker to maintain a seated position for prolonged periods. According to Ms Baxter, “Sitting for longer than 30 minutes without a mini-break, and sitting all day at work is likely to be detrimental to health.” The document, which can be found on the safeworkaustralia.gov.au website, even displays images of one worker driving a tractor and another driving a truck on the front cover. Statistics show that more than 23,000 serious injuries are reported yearly relating to manual handling and other ‘body stress’ associated factors in the construction industry alone. The intent of the publication is to increase awareness and provide statistical data to enable employers and employer groups to take steps to reduce the level of risk their workers are exposed to.
According to the hierarchy of risk control measures, the ideal action is to eliminate the task requiring extended sedentary exposure. Unless you have another means of moving dirt, digging a trench or trimming a road, you’re going to need equipment that requires an operator. More realistic, although lower down the hierarchy are the engineering and administrative control options. Whereas the evolution of technology has created an exponential increase in the number and range of occupations and career paths requiring workers to be seated in other industries, it might just be the saviour in ours. The uptake of GPS guided and controlled equipment is improving productivity and efficiency, which translates in less man hours in the operator’s seat. The next step on the hierarchy is administrative controls, which include the scheduling of workers’ duties and allotted break times. This is where the real impact can be made. Through more effective scheduling and more flexible break times, Australian workers can be guaranteed a maximum exposure level. Processes can be developed to record actual duration spent in the seated position and schedules can be adapted and modified accordingly.
The range and severity of the resultant symptoms vary, but the statistics are alarming. The mortality rate of workers when separated by their sedentary habits in the workplace was demonstrated to be significantly higher amongst those that spent between 8-11 hours per day in a seated position. There is also a significant increase in the prominence of conditions such as diabetes, weight gain, fatal and non-fatal cardiovascular disease, cancers, musculoskeletal disorders and mental health. Other key factors such as diet, sleep patterns and recreational physical activity levels also play a part in overall health, however the link to sedentary behaviour in the workplace is undeniable. Everybody is different so it is difficult to determine what the acceptable level of exposure is exactly, but preliminary results suggest that seven hours per day would be the maximum before the effects begin to increase more rapidly. The publication suggests somewhere between getting up and moving around for between 2-30 minutes in every 20-30 minutes.
With the invention of personal activity measuring devices, it is easy to self-monitor your own activity levels. Some companies have even issued these to workers as a pro-active step to minimise sedentary levels. I prefer to walk while I’m on the phone if I know I will be on the call for a while or have several calls to return. I take my ear buds and walk up the street and I encourage my staff to follow suit. Our workers are our most valuable resource and we have a duty of care to minimise their level of exposure to known hazards.
For more information and suggestions regarding the management of this emerging health and safety issue, visit the Safe Work Australia website and download the publication for free. Just be sure to go for a walk while you read it.