Working standing up

Standing is a natural human posture and by itself poses no particular health hazard. However, working in a standing position for long periods of time and on a regular basis can cause sore feet, swelling of the legs, general muscular fatigue, lower back pain, stiffness in the neck and shoulders, all in a relatively short time. These are common complaints among salespeople, machine operators, assembly-line workers and many others whose jobs require prolonged standing.

There is no single, ideal body position for working. Constant sitting is not the safe alternative to constant standing, in fact prolonged sitting is a risk to health and safety as well (see Sedentary Work).  For the best health and safety outcome, workers should be able to adopt a variety of positions - that is to have the option to sit, stand, move around and vary the nature of work tasks.  It is important for the worker to be able to equally distribute loads on different parts of the body, with no physical strain.

Advice for OHS Reps

If workers in your DWG are standing for long periods of time, then as the OHS rep you can raise this issue with your employer (or employer's representative) to negotiate changes to improve the job and workplace design, and therefore reduce the risk to those workers.  Remember that under Section 21 of the OHS Act, the employer has a duty to provide safe and healthy systems of work, and to ensure that the workplace itself is safe and without risks to health.

There are two essential principles of good workplace design:

  1. No working posture is so good that it can be maintained for any length of time without variation; and
  2. No two individuals are alike, so the workstation has to be adapted to the individuals using it.

Advice from the Canadian Autoworkers Union (CAW) says key objectives of union negotiations should be to:

  • Reduce the time spent standing or walking
  • Obtain suitable, adjustable chairs
  • Negotiate more rest breaks
  • Alternate standing and walking with sitting
  • Make work surfaces height-adjustable.

The following advice comes from the TUC (Britain's peak union council) and the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety:

Workstation design
Possible workstation adaptations can include:

  • an adjustable height work surface - using elbow height as a guide. For example, precision work, such as writing or electronic assembly, requires a work surface that's 5 cm above elbow height; your elbows should be supported. Light work, such as assembly-line or mechanical jobs, require a work surface that is 5 to 10 cm below elbow height. Heavy work, demanding downward forces, requires a surface that is 20 to 40 cm below elbow height.
  • If the work surface is not adjustable, install a platform to raise a shorter worker and a pedestal to raise the work piece for a taller worker;
  • room for workers to change body positions;
  • a foot-rail or footrest enabling workers to shift weight from one leg to the other;
  • elbow supports for precision work;
  • padded kneeler in front of workers allowing them to kneel slightly forward while performing tasks in front of them;
  • choice to work sitting or standing at will (sit/stand stool);
  • a seat for resting if standing is unavoidable.

Job design

Basic principles of good job design for standing work include:

  • provision for worker training on proper work practices and use of rest breaks;
  • job rotation among a group of workers;
  • job enlargement to give workers more and varied tasks to increase body positions and motions;
  • avoidance of extreme bending, stretching and twisting;
  • work paced appropriately; and
  • frequent rest breaks.

Floor/standing surface

  • Wooden, cork or rubber-covered floors are far preferable to concrete or metal
  • If the floor surface is hard, then the employer should provide mats for the workers to stand on. Floor mats should have slanted edges to help prevent tripping. They must be dense enough to cushion the feet, but not too thick ('anti-fatigue' matting is available). Too much cushioning, from thick foam-rubber mats, for example, can cause fatigue and increase the hazard of tripping.

Advice to workers

Proper position:

  • If working in a standing position, workers should always face what they are working on, with their body close to the work.
  • The workspace should be adjusted so that workers have enough space to change working position.
  • Workers should use a foot rail or portable footrest to shift their body weight from both legs to one or the other leg.
  • Workers should use a seat whenever possible while working, or at least during rest breaks.
  • Over-reaching behind or above the shoulder line, or beyond the point of what is comfortable should be avoided. Instead of reaching, workers should shift their feet to face the object.

Comfortable Footwear:

If the feet are not comfortable, the legs, hips and back won't be comfortable. Foot comfort depends largely on footwear.

  • footwear must be appropriate for the workplace hazards
  • Shoes need to be wide enough to leave room to move toes.
  • Shoes should have arch supports to prevent flattening of the feet, and a heel with a firm grip to prevent slipping.
  • Lace-up shoes are preferable, as they allow the worker to tighten the instep of the footwear, ensuring the foot does not slip inside the shoe or boot.
  • The footwear should have heels that are not flat, but are no higher than 5 cm (2 inches).
  • If the worker is standing on a metal or cement floor, the foot should be cushioned with a shock-absorbing insole.

What are the effects of standing for long periods?

Major health problems
Standing most of the working day every working day is not good news for the lower limbs - it can damage joints, make muscles ache and cause problems with the feet ranging from bunions and corns, to heel spurs and flat feet.

The most commonly reported symptoms appear to be discomfort, fatigue and swelling in the legs. Workers required to spend too much time on their feet are at greatly increased risk of pain and discomfort affecting feet, shins and calves, knees, thighs, hips and lower pack.

There are a variety of longer term health problems that may be caused by prolonged and frequent standing. Without some relief by walking, blood may pool in the legs and feet, which can cause inflammation of the veins that may progress over time to painful varicose veins. Excessive standing also causes the joints in the spine, hips, knees and feet to become temporarily immobilized or locked. This immobility can later lead to rheumatic diseases due to degenerative damage to the tendons and ligaments.and other health problems.

2012 research suggests that standing for long periods at work while pregnant may curb the growth of the developing foetus. [Claudia A Snijder, Teus Brand, Vincent Jaddoe, Albert Hofman, Johan P Mackenbach, Eric AP Steegers and Alex Burdorf. Physically demanding work, fetal growth and the risk of adverse birth outcomes. The Generation R Study, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 27 June 2012, Online First doi 10.1136/oemed-2011-100615.]

European research published in 2017 identified a relationship between walking and standing in occupational settings and the need for surgery for lateral (but not medial) inguinal hernias, which affect 25 to 30 per cent of men at some stage in their lives. According to the data, workers who spend more than six hours a day standing or walking at work have a 45 per cent higher risk of undergoing lateral inguinal hernia repair than those who walk or stand fewer than four hours a day. [Marie Vestergaard Vad, et al, Inguinal hernia repair among men in relation to occupational mechanical exposures and lifestyle factors: a longitudinal study. [abstract] Occupational and Environmental Medicine, online first May 2017 doi: 10.1136/oemed-2016-104160]

Circulatory problems
There is strong evidence linking prolonged standing at work to an increased risk of heart problems and stroke.  Researchers have linked prolonged standing to an increased risk of carotid atherosclerosis, which in turn can cause an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

Standing symptoms
(from the TUC report)

  • painful feet and legs
  • welling in feet and legs
  • bunions/corns
  • heel problems, including plantar fasciitis/heel spurs
  • Achilles tendonitis
  • varicose veins*
  • orthopaedic changes to the feet, including flat feet
  • low back pain
  • restricted blood flow
  • immobilisation/locking of joints
  • arthritis in knees and hips
  • stiffness in neck and shoulders
  • problems in pregnancy and birth defects
  • high blood pressure
  • heart and circulatory problems 

* A study published in 2015 has found that prolonged standing and heavy lifting at work are risk factors for varicose veins in employees' legs. (For more information: Tabatabaeifar, S & Ors: Varicose veins in the lower extremities in relation to occupational mechanical exposures: a longitudinal study [Abstract], Occupational & Environmental Medicine, 9 January 2015)

See Also

  • From the UK's TUC and published in Hazards magazine, a major report on the Standing problem that gives extensive information on the health effects of standing for long periods and advice on how to reduce the risk, including looking at workstation and job design, flooring, matting, and so on.  There is also advice for pregnant workers.  A recent TUC guide for health and safety reps Working feet and footwear [pdf] advises that workers should be able to wear the footwear that is appropriate to their occupation, working environment, and feet.
  • From Canada's Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS):
    • Tips on avoiding foot injuries for workers who stand: Safety and Comfort: Feet First. The article provides advice on appropriate job and workplace design, the standing surface, footwear and foot care.  Apart from foot problems, working standing up can also increase levels of fatigue.
    • An OSH Answer which covers a number of questions:  Working in a Standing Position
  • For advice on proper seating see Officewise - A guide to health and safety in the office [pdf]  

This information is based on material from the TUC Report and the CCOSH

Last amended June 2017

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