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Blurring the Line between Working and Working Out

Office employees injured at their treadmill desks pose workers' comp risks. Those risks have to be weighed along with the potential benefits of such desks, which may help control health premiums by creating a healthier workforce.

Friday, January 6, 2012
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The American Heart Association says walking 10,000 steps per day can help reduce the risk of stroke by 70 percent, and initial heart attacks by 90 percent.

The American Diabetes Association says walking 10,000 steps per day can help reduce Type II Diabetes by 50 percent.

The National Institutes of Health says walking 10,000 steps per day can reduce cancer rates by 30 percent to 70 percent.

Indeed, it's hard to argue with anyone who walks as much as 10,000 steps a day on company-sponsored treadmills modified to double as a workspace. There's a twist to the story, however.

Companies investing in the walk-at-work movement could expose themselves to employees filing cumulative trauma claims, says workers' compensation expert Paul Braun, managing director of casualty claims at Aon Global Risk Consulting.

"The very simple issue around this type of exposure is that, if somebody gets hurt at work and the company has this kind of arrangement, the claim will be accepted; there's no way around it," Braun says.

Cumulative-type trauma injuries could be blamed on the treadmill desks by employees who are competitive or serious runners, Braun says.

Not that there's a lot of risk in treadmills modified as desks. The carpet operates at only 1 mph to 2 mph, according to one manufacturer, and the equipment isn't calibrated for heavy exercise. Walk-at-work involves walking or pedaling on exercise equipment attached to a desk with a computer screen and keyboard.

A roster of A-list companies have bought walk-at-work treadmills for their employees as a way to promote wellness and exercise. Machines can be located in individual cubicles or in makeshift conference centers.

One manufacturer, Tread Desk Inc. in Fishers, Ind., lists AOL, AMD, BestBuy, Bristol Myers-Squibb, Coca Cola Bottling, Consona, Eli Lilly, Kimball International, Microsoft, Minnesota Public Radio, Pixar and Toyota as clients.

Billy Dutton, CEO at Music.com in Los Angeles, ordered eight TrekDesks, in addition to the one he got for himself, to help control health premiums and create a healthy workforce. Working and walking at the same time won't impede productivity at the company.

"We multitask all the time," he said, in an interview last year with Human Resource Executive®. "We'll drive our car with our lunch in one hand, cell phone in the other hand and our knee is on the steering wheel. And we do that all the time ... it's easier than what we do in the car, and we do that with ease."

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Some employment attorneys, such as Shaffin Datoo, an employment lawyer in the New York office of Venable, told HRE that some companies may be reluctant to institute a walk-at-work program because of the injury threat to employees, which could lead to workers' compensation claims, lawsuits and lost work time.

"I've not seen any insurance riders to cover that kind of risk," Braun says. "If this was really well-known to the underwriters they might be asking for potential problems. You don't necessarily see it in an underwriting submission."

Nor has he yet come across underwriters asking insureds for information pertaining to walk-at-work desks, he says. "If you saw a rash of these injuries coming out, then at the company's next renewal, premiums would go up."

The history of cumulative trauma claims from carpal-tunnel syndrome may hint at a precedent, Braun said.

Before the invention of the keyboard, there was no such thing as carpal-tunnel syndrome. With heavy usage, employees could file for benefits under workers' comp years after, even if they hadn't necessarily suffered from wrist injuries at work.

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