Britain's workers stand for worse conditions than the Victorians

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date: 23 August 2005

embargo: 00.01 hours Thursday 25 August

Up to 11 million UK workers could face serious health problems from prolonged standing at work, and they are offered less protection than employees from the Victorian era, says a new report from the TUC published today (Thursday).

'Standing problem', which appears in the latest edition of the TUC-backed health and safety magazine Hazards says that despite calls at the end of the 19th century for action to be taken about the dire health consequences for London's shop assistants from constant standing the problems are as acute today as they were in Victorian Times.

Every year over 2 million sick days are lost due to lower limb disorders, with nearly 200,000 people reporting lower limb ailments caused or made worse by their job. Workers who spend most of the working day on their feet are at risk of work-related varicose veins, poor circulation and swelling in the feet and legs, foot problems, joint damage, heart and circulatory problems and pregnancy difficulties.

A Hazards survey of UK union national safety officers for the report found widespread problems caused by standing at work. Unions representing shopworkers, teachers, library staff, production line workers, warehouse staff, museum workers, school supervisors, train drivers, printers, hospitality and casino workers and engineers all reported standing-related health problems experienced by their members.

The health effects associated with prolonged standing vary with the job - whether for example, you are stood still, required to lift materials or operate machinery, or whether you are required to walk some or all the time.

Constant walking, particularly on hard surfaces, can cause progressive damage to bones in the foot, including the heel. With each step, the heel lands of the floor with a force of between one and a half and two times a person's body weight.

The way some jobs are performed can greatly exacerbate strain on joints and muscles. Badly designed checkouts require retail workers to stand with their feet fixed while twisting their upper bodies and moving goods. Shopworkers' union Usdaw estimates that a checkout worker lifts up to two tonnes of goods in an average four-hour shift.

TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said: 'It's quite incredible that some staff today would be better off under Victorian working conditions. There really isn't any need for the excessive standing on the job that this report highlights. Most jobs don't need people to be on their feet all day and bosses need to get over the fact that someone sat down is protecting their health, not being lazy.

'Simple adjustments to the way millions of people work will save countless sick days each year and stop British workers from, in some cases, dying on their feet.'

Hazards Editor Rory O'Neill said: 'Britain's stand-and-deliver workplaces are causing disfiguring, disabling and potentially deadly health problems. For some circulatory conditions, for example atherosclerosis, prolonged standing could be as risky as smoking; it could cause hypertension equivalent to 20 years of ageing. In pregnancy, both the mother and the fetus can face unacceptable and avoidable risks.

'You don't walk into work to face daily discomfort from varicose veins, bunions and heel spurs. And protracted periods on your feet are not necessary - in Sweden, for example, it is rare for workers to be required to stand for more than two hours per day. Employers in the UK should get off their backsides and provide more seating, more rest breaks and better designed workstations and jobs.'

The first priority is prevention, but 'Standing problem' recognises that standing cannot be avoided in all jobs and offers tips and advice on how to minimise the health risks through things like improved workstation design, flooring and personal protective equipment (PPE).


These Boots staff aren't made for standing

Wendy Murphy, an organiser with retail union Usdaw in the north-west, says plans by high street chain Boots to replace checkouts with a standing room only alternative have caused dismay among its staff. She says her members 'don't feel these perch seats will make any difference to their discomfort whilst at the stand-up till. Although the idea of the perch is to relieve staff standing constantly whilst serving on the tills, they can only use it inbetween serving customers. There is always a queue of customers so the opportunity to use the perch doesn't arise so it's pretty pointless being there.'

Usdaw believes the failure to provide suitable seating is a breach of the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations, and is seeking support from the local health and safety enforcement agency on the situation in one store in the north-west already using the new tills.

How I got my varicose veins

Jim Marshall started work as an apprentice in heavy engineering in Glasgow in 1963, at the age of 16. 'I was a turner. This meant standing for at least eight hours, sometimes 12, a day operating a turning lathe. Some had wooden duck boards, but often I had to stand on concrete. After about three years I first noticed I had a varicose vein running up the inside of my right leg. At that time I cycled and played - not very good - football and thought it was related to sport.'

By the time Jim was in his 30s, both legs were covered in unsightly and sometimes irritable veins. 'I last worked in engineering in October 1983 when I first became unemployed and then went to college and university. The veins didn't go away and in 1991 at the age of 44, varicose eczema appeared on both ankles.

'After a discussion that involved me relating my work history, my GP suggested that I have the veins removed and said I probably contracted them through standing for long periods on concrete and wood. I had no idea that this could have caused the problem until then.' It took two surgeons, one on each leg, around three hours to remove the veins.

'No other members of my family have ever had varicose veins and it is now too late for me to do anything to prevent them,' he said. 'The problem is that having veins removed when you are relatively young means that others could develop and there are a finite number in your legs. This could lead to serious problems in later life.'

Lengthy legwork in a library

Allie Ewan is a UNISON health and safety rep at a library in Taunton. 'My colleagues do suffer from tiredness and fatigue and in particular working on a late night or a Saturday.' At the main library in Taunton the full time staff start work from 8.35am and finish at 5.35pm. On late opening days, staff can spend eight hours out of a 10.5 hour shift on their feet.

Allie says most of her colleagues consider standing as 'part of the job' and will not complain. She says in the smaller branch libraries, where workers are on their own, library assistants will often stand for the whole day. 'I do not think it is a growing problem but one that has always existed in libraries but with health and safety awareness growing, one which we now feel more able to challenge. Libraries are often the forgotten health and safety hazard and seen as low risk a nice quiet job!'

Better feet without stepping on toes

When Rich Thompson undertook a union health and safety survey in his print shop, there were two stand out results. Workers were getting bad backs and bad feet. The Amicus-GPM safety rep at Amcor Flexibles Colodense in Bristol found over half of his workmates were suffering from foot or knee problems, ranging from sore heels to aching, itchy feet. He presented his findings to management, who responded immediately and positively.

In a trial agreed with the union, workers were issued with cushioned insoles for their shoes. 'The trial with the insoles they supplied has been encouraging and they should now be available to all,' said Rich.

Back problems were linked to work on a cylinder wash machine. 'The findings were instrumental in getting a new cylinder wash machine,' said Rich, 'and as a result we would hope to see fewer back injuries.'

No job, no pension, no justice

David Craner was employed for 13 years as a school site manager in Weymouth. A highly qualified UNISON branch health and safety officer and safety rep, he was very aware of safety and his rights. But this didn't stop his employer from terminating the 58-year-old's contract on medical grounds in February 2005 when bad knees, the result of a workplace accident, made it difficult for him to cope with prolonged standing.

He says two operations made very little difference and he now has other problems affecting both legs, which make prolonged standing, sitting or bending very painful.

'This accident has cost my job, my tied accommodation, my credit status and my leisure interest,' he said.

From being employed, highly skilled and active, David is now living on benefits. 'I am very angry with the occupational doctor who kept me off work. He has advised my employer not to agree to release my pension early on the grounds I would be capable of doing alternative employment provided that I had the flexibility to stand, sit and move about in order to exercise my legs.

'The employer made very little effort to re-deploy me and I am now on incapacity benefit of £75 per week. The best advice I can offer to anyone in a similar position is to keep a diary of all events and seek advice from your branch officer sooner rather than later.'

Disability warning to bad employers

Virgin Trains driver Martyn Hazelhurst, 38, was awarded £41,000 in disability discrimination damages at a June 2005 employment tribunal in Exeter. The ASLEF member claimed that under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) the company should have done more to help him to return to light duties after a knee operation on injuries sustained in a rail crash in 2000. The painful injury made it impossible for him to cope with prolonged standing.

Vaughan Gething, of Thompsons Solicitors, who represented Mr Hazelhurst, said: 'This is a positive approach by the employment tribunal exactly as envisaged by the disability legislation.' The tribunal took the unusual step of saying it would make recommendations in relation to the 'adjustments' that Virgin should make under the DDA to allow Mr Hazelhurst to return to work.

Three senior managers at Virgin Cross Country Trains were ordered by the employment tribunal to attend training in disability rights law. Along with training 'within three months' for the named senior managers, it also ordered Virgin to pay Mr Hazelhurst his basic salary until he can either return to driving duties, is certified unfit for any duties or starts a suitable new job with Virgin.


The report offers the following advice to make jobs less of a standing problem.

Workstation design
Possible workstation adaptations include:

? adjustable height work surface. 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:

? 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 with frequent rest breaks

Flooring Hard, concrete floors are about the worst possible surface. Materials that provide flexibility such as wood, cork, carpeting, or rubber are gentler on workers' feet. Concrete or metal floors can be covered with mats. Mats should have slanted edges to help prevent tripping. Machines should be mounted to reduce vibration through the floor. Thick foam-rubber mats should be avoided. Too much cushioning can cause fatigue and increase the risk of tripping.

Protective equipment (PPE) The correct footwear is important. Footwear should not change the shape of the foot, have enough space to move toes, have shock absorbing cushioned insoles and heels no higher than 5cm (2 inches). The acid test of any measures is user opinion - if the workers say it doesn't work, then other solutions must be found.

- The full Hazards article can be found at

- The Autumn 2005 issue of Hazards is out now. For subscription inquiries or orders contact Jawad Qasrawi on 0114 201 4265 or email [email protected]

- The case studies are all available for interview.

- All TUC press releases can be found at

- Register for the TUC's press extranet : a service exclusive to journalists wanting to access pre?embargo releases and reports from the TUC. Visit

- A series of TUC rights leaflets are available on our website and from the know your rights line 0870 600 4 882. Lines are open every day from 9am-9pm. Calls are charged at the national rate.


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Dan Ashley T: 020 7467 1372; M: 07880 504 846; E: [email protected]

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