The Danger Lurking at Your Desk

deskI’ve often found myself chained to the chair for hours and when I get up I’ve got a stiff neck, sore back and tight wrists. That’s just after one day at the office. Times that by 40 + years of a desk job and companies are looking at some serious work comp claims in their future.

It makes sense that there are not more safety initiatives in place to prevent desk job injuries. Unlike construction sites or fishing boats, managers at these kinds of companies might not be thinking about the dangers of their day-to-day activities. Today, 86 percent of Americans sit at a desk for up to 40 hours a week. What does that do to their bodies?

Chiropractor Gregory Soltanoff said he sees a lot of patients with repetitive strain injury in the neck, back, or wrist. This is likely the result of sitting at a desk for the majority of their life. Musculoskeletal strains are the fastest growing type of claims in workers’ comp and even still, the numbers do not tell the whole truth. Many cases go unreported and the work force has not experienced such a majority of desk jobs for a long enough time to gather real data.

Repetitive Strain Injuries develop when the body suffers repeated micro-traumas, caused by strain on the musculoskeletal system. Things like sitting with poor posture for a long time (guilty) or the way you curl your hands when typing (also guilty).

It can be frustrating for people who are affected because the diagnosis can take a long time. It’s not as if there was a specific thing that occurred that would lead the doctor to any real conclusion. It takes years to develop and it can be hard to pinpoint the source of pain. This can be frustrating to workers who are already taking time off of work. And once the pain is gone, the worker might just go back to the same behaviors that developed the injury to begin with so they end up back at the doctors later on.

Soltanoff said that employers should look at their carpal tunnel claims. If they have a high number of those they likely have workers suffering from back and neck injuries as well, but those go underreported and they are not as highly diagnosed.

Another musculoskeletal problem is called deconditioning, when we weaken and stiffen due to sedentary activities. This is a silent monster than could rear its ugly head in an everyday task like wrenching your back carrying groceries up the stairs. Soltanoff says to look at the number of lower back injuries your workers are claiming, as this could be a symptom of deconditioning. It also could hinder rehab efforts, as healthy bodies heal faster than weak ones.

Prolonged sitting has been noted as a factor in chronic diseases like obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. These illnesses can mean a much longer chunk of lost time from work.

It is difficult to say what prolonged sitting really does to your bottom line (well, we know what it may do to some people’s bottom lines) but speaking financially most of the losses are just estimates. In terms of time loss, these diseases could contribute to long spans of time off from work, or workers who are at work but also thinking about how much their back hurts and not thinking about their TPA reports.

Now for the “So what?” What can be done? Posture lessons? Ergonomic devices?

Soltanoff says there are two key components to try and fix this problem- education and prevention.

Education means spreading the word about these diseases. Because repetitive strain injuries or prolonged sitting injuries take a long time to diagnose, claims costs can rack up as patients visit multiple specialists and get different tests to try and reach a diagnosis. Knowing more about the symptoms and diagnosis options might mean they get diagnosed earlier, reducing the need for costly and unnecessary tests.

Prevention means getting employers to move more! You have your standing desks, exercise balls to sit on. I like to take a lap or two around the office every hour to refill my water bottle or go to the bathroom. Just in taking this quick stretch, I find I am more focused and energized too.

So though it can be hard to avoid sitting for a while in the jobs most of us do, try to be more conscious about it. Think about alternative desks, wrist pads, mini-breaks. In the end your body (and your boss when he looks at his comp premiums) might thank you for it.

What's your take? Continue the discussion with others over at the WCInsights LinkedIn Group.
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