Have we created a culture of torture?

Don’t ask workers to do anything
you wouldn’t do.

How much does your company spend on safety, ergonomics, automation, and lean practices? It’s all intended to address injury rates, wellness, productivity and quality right? Yet companies still post job offers that state, upfront, that workers will be required to stand 90% of the shift and this one says it’s “their culture”! What could possibly drive business to put that statement right in the job posting if it isn’t a huge problem for the companies [and workers] and if it wasn’t a huge liablity they need to get in front of. Maybe its time to look at “why” the valuable investments aren’t making measurable change. Let’s look at the numbers.

The US alone spends over $100B annually on back pain.

The US alone spends over $130B annually on chronic fatigue.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that productivity losses linked to absenteeism cost employers $225.8 billion annually in the United States, or $1,685 per employee.

Absenteeism obviously results in lower productivity but preabsenteeism can be much more expensive. That’s because workers on the clock, take longer breaks, more frequent time away from their workstations, impact other workers nearby, take early quits, lose cognitive focus, and try to lean back every few minutes. So the losses in productivity are exponential even though they are on site, producing.

If we address simple causes, we can impact all of those initiatives, quite decisively. Though the instances of musculoskeletal disorders, chronic fatigue, heart disease, inflammation and diabetes originate from various factors, 90M US workers are standing at work and many stand 90% of an 8, 10 or 12 hour shift. This amounts to a significant form of unintended torture, especially over a long career. Governments actually use standing as torture because its dibilitating. Consider the effects over every standing industry and you see the systemic root problems and runaway costs of risk, healthcare and the shifting paradigms in career direction by younger workers. I mean, who wouldn’t love to apply for this dream job that tells you right up front, “you will be miserable here your whole career”? Many companies already represent a culture where the applicant must be tough enough to work there and that they had better leave “complaining” at home.

Before mass production, people worked in manual labor too, but all jobs were manual labor back then. Back then, people performed a wide range of movements and tasks to produce the handful of products they sold locally. The day we hit the switch on the first assembly line, we began a culture of unrealized torture and business has fought ever since to solve it [with band aids]. We keep putting our brightest sitting workers on it and wonder why we can’t solve standing. Past generations called physical exhaustion “a hard day’s work” and it really was. But as their children took jobs statically standing and performing repetitious tasks, these hard working older generations still called the resulting impaired cognitive health and fatigue, a hard day’s work. The elders simply accused the youth of being “soft” in their “easy” jobs. Sound familiar? It should. It’s a big reason why we see less and less young people choosing labor intensive jobs. It’s a death spiral that goes on and on and on, all because we stopped thinking for ourselves. The moral; never under estimate what you know! You stand at times and you know its brutal. So ask yourself, “why is it brutal” and “how does it affect productivity”?

Entire industries have now been built around addressing the productivity problems in the workplace but not one second or dollar has been spent on the real reason “why”. We automate processes because we want more profit and output and instead of looking at “why” humans are dying on their feet, we keep trying to make the jobs easier which creates even more static standing. We have less workers, standing longer times, handling more output, than ever before. We have created state of the art safety protocols and lean initiatives to improve productivity, followed closely by ergonomics to improve the workspace around the worker. Yet today, companies still place disclaimer warnings on job postings like this one, rather than identifying and correcting the “causes” of fatigue and pain in standing. Current research still attributes chronic fatigue to lifestyle choices and sleep deprivation. That leads us to believe that it is more likely that fatigue in millions of workers results from staying up to late and eating fast food rather than spending 90% of their shift and 30+ years of their life, standing.

In our manufacturing company, we refused to accept those conclusions and we asked “why”. We used common sense to design and built a fixture to help ourselves. By applying proven principles from various disciplines, we discovered that whenever humans stop to stand and perform a task, we experience postural sway. Our body then works continuosly to remain upright in gravity. Within minutes of standing, our tendons, muscles and fascia tense up in continuous movements to keep us balanced on our feet. This subconscious effort uses more energy than we realize and as the fatigue builds, discomfort begins. This discomfort pulls at our focus as we begin to think of relief in addition to the complex and often dangerous task. Office ergonomics suggest that standing desk users, go for a walk when they reach that point. The benefits of movement are never questioned because they’re healthy. But motion is a form of controlling postural sway and that’s actually “why” it helps the effects of standing. Unfortunately, productivity stops during walks so workers just sit back down instead. In most other standing jobs, workers have NOTHING to help stabilize this sway and simply lock their knees and hips to keep right on reaching and lifting. Think cashiers, machinists, assembly, nurses, surgeons, customer service, etc. But just like we see in dead lifting, repetitious reach/lift of even light weights with the knees locked, causes increased lower back torque, strain, pain and injuries.

“This is just how humans stand right?” No, actually. Humans developed to bipedal TRAVEL, not bipedal static standing. Even the best atheltes can’t hold a positive shin angle for any extened duration because the human body is built for bipedal travel. But with a stabalizing support, humans can strengthen rather quickly to flexed knee standing. The benefits of controlling sway in standing and proper hip hinge in reach/lift, haven’t even been calculated yet! The expansive rush to mass produce resulted in mass office jobs. If those workers had to stand for 90% of their shift, this problem would have been resolved long ago. Standing desks are now bringing this problem to light in management as they begin to try to do what workers have been suffering to do, day in and day out for a long time.

Take some time to think about your workers and the simple solution of providing balance and stability in locations where they stop moving to stand and work. Building the strength to stand takes a little time and management has to engage the workers to participate but when they do, the workers will have better circulation behind the knees which improves their cogntive focus and health. They will gain strength to stand without locking their knees and hips which will reduce torque in their lower back. And finally, they will stand comfortably which reduces risk, lost time and turnover, while improving engagement, productivity and quality. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Posted in