Long-Term Health Problems for Industrial Operators

Sitting Dangers for Process Application and Operators. Sitting Is the New Smoking

By Jim Montague

So I'm sitting here writing this column. A few days ago, I was sitting here writing this issue's "Perfect Fit: Operator Performance" cover article on all the different ways to improve operator performance. As the years have whizzed by, I've noticed after a few hours of sitting that I sort of begin to congeal like Jell-O in a mold. Now I'm already up to my neck in a tub of Crisco, metaphorically speaking, but this is different than flab because I can tell my bones, muscles, joints and even my skin are growing increasingly rigid. Yes, I have cankles, too.

Luckily, I also get some occasional exercise, and I always feel better when I can stretch, walk or ride the old Schwinn Airdyne exercise bike. Sure, I get pretty winded with most exertion, but I've also noticed that it isn't the activity that makes me sore, but the inactivity afterwards when every muscle contracts and sets like plaster. It's logical that exercise gets the blame for pain, but it's the long-term sitting or lying down that's the real enemy, even though resting briefly after exertion is an undeniable blessing. It's the duration of the inactivity. This is an important point.

Also Read "User Interfaces Should Empower Operators"

So while sitting and interviewing sources on the phone for my "Perfect Fit" story over the past few weeks, I perked up when a few mentioned the potential danger to process applications and operators of sitting too long. They stressed waning awareness of process control indicators, alerts and alarms, but they also focused on the long-term health problems for operators and any desk jockey due to their sedentary workplaces and lifestyles. A couple even reported hearing a new phrase, "Sitting is the new smoking," to illustrate how unhealthy inactivity can be. I can believe it.

Of course, lots of research and many articles are available on this topic. Two useful stories were in the New York Times: "Is Sitting a Lethal Activity?" by James Vlahos on April 14, 2011, and at, and "Don't Just Sit There" by Gretchen Reynolds on April 28, 2012, and at

After shooting prey, ancient hunters tracked it on foot for hours until it fell down, then cut what they could carry and walked all the way home.

When I've covered operator effectiveness in the past, some control room designers reported adding small exercise rooms next their control rooms. These supposedly help operators get in short workouts to help revive them. This year, several suppliers explained they've been going one step further, and providing consoles and workstations with "sit/stand" options. Honeywell Process Solutions, ABB, Winstead and others offer variations on the sit/stand concept.

The good news is that sit/stand workstations not only fit operators of different sizes to begin with, but also allow them to adjust their workstations for either activity throughout their shifts. Early reports from users are that being able to shift positions and more around more freely improves comfort and awareness.

So why is this? Well, I'm betting it all goes back to our good, old hunter-gatherer biology. Legs are bigger than arms because we've been walking around for food ever since we left the trees. We're hardwired, so to speak, to be standing or walking during most of our waking hours.

Long ago, I did a feature story on a bow hunting club in Algonquin, Ill., and their research indicated that most primitive hunters waited in trees for prey to come by, but after getting a shot off, they usually had to walk after it for hours or days until it fell down. Then, they had to cut what they could carry, and walk all the way home. Not easy, but very good aerobics.

In our modern era, the hunt only lasts as long as the five seconds it takes to get to the refrigerator. This is much more convenient, of course, but not much of a challenge and not really even a tiny workout. Most of us need to get our blood and other fluids pumping through our biological process facilities for periods closer to those long walks of old.

So even though I don't have a sit/stand station, I will put a cardboard box under my notepad and PC, and do as many interviews and as much writing as I can in a vertical position.

How about you?