There is a Seinfeld episode where George Costanza develops an obsessive empathy for a security guard who is forced to stand at work at his fiancé’s uncle’s clothing store.
“Why does he have to stand on his feet for eight hours a day when he could easily be sitting?” asks an incredulous Costanza, as his fiancé displays a lack of interest in the topic.
The interplay of Costanza’s pathology and his friends’ relative nonchalance about the matter is a source of amusement on the episode. But the coercive standing at work that millions of people across Canada (and many other countries) endure is no laughing matter.
According to the federal-government funded Canadian Centre for Occupational Health, prolonged standing causes multiple health problems including varicose veins, lower back pain and swelling in the legs.
Not surprisingly, workers are not fond of enduring pain (despite what some employers might want you to believe).
“I would dread the eight-hour shifts because even with a half-hour break in the middle for food, around the six or seven hour mark, I would be thinking like, ‘Oh my God I need to sit, I need to lie down,’” says David Williston, who worked in multiple retail jobs for about five years.
Jennifer Grunweg, a former supervisor at a large departmental store chain in Toronto, says she would often hear colleagues complain about the toll of being on their feet for entire shifts.
These remarks are consistent with the Occupational Health and Safety Council of Ontario’s ergonomic guidelines, which state that more than four hours of standing at work throughout the day increases health risks. OHSCO also points to the dangers of standing continuously for more than an hour.
In recent years there has been an increased focus on the dangers of excessive sitting at work, but far too little attention to the harms caused by excessive standing.
Dr. Jack Callaghan, the director of a research centre on prevention of musculoskeletal disorders at the University of Waterloo, notes that sitting has received undue attention relative to standing, which is more damaging.
Dr. Callaghan advocates an ideal ratio of equal parts sitting and standing, though he realizes that this may not always be feasible. Achieving such a target might require changing the entire workplace design, for instance requiring not only flexible chairs but also adjustable desks.
And in environments such as factories, it may be altogether impossible to revamp workspaces in the short-term.
Moreover, the rotation of standing and sitting alone is not sufficient, according to Dr. Callaghan. Research shows that doing either in a constrained position is detrimental.
He stresses the importance of allowing workers greater control of their own workflows, where they can move around adequately to suit their own requirements.
David Antle, an Edminton-based ergonomist with a PhD in the discipline, echoes that point of view.
“You could give them the ability to rotate tasks for posture variability, or if they are stuck at a job, you could design a work station in a way that allows them to use the seat or stand,” Antle says.
For instance, one could be scheduled to work as a cashier in a grocery store for a few hours, with a sit-stand stool to alternate positions based on their own convenience, and then be tasked for the rest of the shift with movement-oriented work such as stocking shelves or assisting customers.
Other recommended solutions by ergonomists include anti-fatigue mats with beveled edges, comfortable shoes with insoles and padded surfaces.
Walk into any retail or service sector outlet in Ontario, whether it’s Shopper’s Drug Mart, Loblaws, Walmart or Winners, and you will notice the absence of chairs for employees, even as many of them work long shifts, sometimes without adequate breaks.
Based on my conversations with multiple people who have worked in this sector, employers’ aversion to chairs is rooted in a paranoia about customers’ negative perception of “lazy employees.”
“Not even sitting, but just kind of like leaning against a counter-top, just to take the pressure of your feet, it would be like, ‘Oh my God, you can’t be leaning, it makes you look lazy, it makes us look sloppy,’” says Williston.
Paul Docherty, spokesperson for the United Food and Commercial Workers 1006a union, says that businesses in Canada operate in the Stone Age compared to their European counterparts, where chairs at grocery stores are more common.
Williston says he understands that companies want to project a polished image, but questions the business sense of having employees appear as “servants,” especially when catering to millennials.
“They (younger people) don’t really feel like they have to walk into a room and be able to spot the servant in the room, like, ‘Oh there’s the person in the black and white tuxedo, and white gloves, that’s the person to talk to,’” he says.
Grunweg says even some of her customers would muse about the logic of having employees stand for entire shifts.
She says cashiers or sales associates would welcome the option of a chair, as many tasks such as working the cash register or folding clothes can be done while seated.
Grunweg’s intuition is consistent with the recommendations of CCOHS. The centre advocates a seat where possible, and the availability of a chair for jobs that require standing.
“We don’t want to sit the whole time anyway. Like we just wanna sit when it’s not busy for like a minute,” she says. “Or when you’re stuck at the cash and you’re not allowed to go to the sales floor, like ‘You’re on the cash, that’s it. You can’t leave your space.’”
She says having the option to stand up or sit down, or to have the freedom to move around, provides a break for workers. She points out that employees like herself would be up on their feet to greet and talk to customers in any case.
None of the employers I contacted including Tim Horton’s, TJX (the parent company of Winners and Marshalls) and Walmart responded to my request for an interview.
The short arm of the law
In Ontario, 46% of all lost-time at work is due to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). MSDs include multiple injuries such as lower back strains, tendonitis, and carpal tunnel syndrome. Prolonged standing is one of many contributors to MSDs.
Ontario’s Ministry of Labour has issued multiple guidelines and informational brochures on the topic, including a MSD-prevention toolbox.
The ministry is in the midst of developing a new toolbox in partnership with the Ontario-funded centre of research that Dr. Callaghan heads, which will be supplemented with an awareness campaign next year.
Technically, employers must take all types of preventative measures to abide by the Occupational Health and Safety Act, which one would assume would mean extending largesse to their employees by not subjecting them to the torturous slow burn of acting as expendable dolls.
When I asked the ministry to comment on why so many workers still stood at work, it wrote back (as part of a long email response):
“There are multiple precautions that can be effective at mitigating the hazards associated with standing for prolonged periods of time. Employers are expected to identify the hazards in their workplace, take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect the health and safety of their workers, ensure workers and supervisors are aware of the hazards and train workers on how to mitigate the hazards through proper use of the precautions implemented by the employer.”
One recourse for workers is their health and safety committee, which is mandatory at every workplace. Workers can even use that avenue to file anonymous complaints.
However, workers are often unaware of their health and safety rights, says Troy Winters, the national H&S representative at Canadian Union of Public Employees.
“Even within unionized memberships, we do workshops all the time and we are always meeting people who are like, ‘Oh I didn’t know this,’” Winter says. “And that comes back to employers not training people properly [to the extent that they need to].”
Although Williston was informed about the health and safety committee, he didn’t feel comfortable raising his concerns at work. In his experience, management doesn’t take kindly to outspoken individuals.
“It would just give them a cause to think you’re a pain in the butt and not to give you as many hours, like ‘Don’t give him a shift because he just complains about having to stand,’” he says.
Employees working under collective bargaining agreements have more leeway to voice concerns, assuming their unions provide adequate representation. But only 31.8% of Canadian employees were unionized as of 2015.
And based on 2011 statistics, only 12% of retail workers are union members.
But even amongst unionized workplaces, health and safety concerns can take a backseat to more pressing concerns.
“When entering into a negotiation, if your main points of contention are your wages and your benefits and your hours, and slowly, slowly you go down the list, and [then comes] health and safety, which is still important, unfortunately, the company tends to ask, ‘Well, what are your major needs?’” says Paul Docherty, spokesperson for United Food and Commercial Workers Union 1006a.
Docherty says pushing for better ergonomics becomes part of a “balancing act” as success depends on the appetite of workers, who may settle for more urgent, and winnable, battles.
In essence, workplace health concerns boil down to the supremacy of the employer, whose belief in an optical illusion matters more than its workers’ right to a safe environment.
In the Seinfeld episode, George Costanza, playing up his relation to the owner, silences the management and provides an armchair for the security guard, who is grateful for the intervention.
At the end of the episode, the store is robbed at gunpoint as the guard is caught dozing off. The image of the guard peacefully reclining in his chair, his hands loosely clinging onto the baton in his lap, and the chief architect of this ruckus missing, is deliciously ironic.
In the comments section of the YouTube clip, the most liked comments are supportive of chairs at work. It seems those people — who perhaps know what it feels like to stand excessively on their feet — understand the difference between a comedy show and reality; between illusion and the sensation of aching muscles. I’m not so sure the employers of Canada understand that distinction.