Sunday, January 21, 2007

To Sit Or Not To Sit....

It hadn't really occurred to me until I read this article, but cashiers at the little grocery store across from our apartment in Paris last Christmas did something almost unheard of in American grocery stores: They sat down.

The question of why American grocery store workers usually stand, rather than sit, was the subject of a Washington Post column today by Marc Fischer who tells the story of a customer, Deana Jordan Sullivan, who went out and bought stools for Safeway checkers to sit on.

Safeway officals said "Thanks, but no thanks."
"We do appreciate the customer's thoughtfulness and generosity," he says. "But sitting on a chair could potentially expose employees to injury. Part of their job requires them to lift heavy objects -- laundry detergent, frozen or fresh turkeys, cat or dog food. Their checkstands are designed to be conducive to standing."

Actually, although you wouldn't think the seating of supermarket cashiers would be an earth-splitting issue, the planet is indeed divided over this: In most European countries and in Australia, grocery checkout clerks routinely do their job perched on stools. In the United States, the tradition has been that they stand all day. And it turns out that this has more to do with image and notions of customer service than with worker health.

The British government's occupational health department issued guidelines in 2005 strongly recommending that supermarket cashiers be given sit-stand stools so clerks could sit when not lifting those heavy items. "A seat should be provided enabling operators to have a choice," the British study concluded.

A report by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration says that thousands of grocery store workers are injured each year by repetitive motions and awkward posture while scanning items and "standing for most of the shift." But Americans take a milder approach to solving the problem. OSHA recommends using anti-fatigue floor mats, which Safeway does provide.

The feds add only that grocery stores should "consider using checkstands designed with an adjustable sit-stand" stool.

Muckle says Safeway's checkstands are not designed to permit stools. Anyway, "culturally, I don't know of any American supermarket where checkers sit down," he says. "That is prevalent in Europe, but in our culture, if people saw that, a lot of people would wonder, 'Are these people really working?' "
Yes, traditional culture is always a good reason to keep subjecting workers to workplace health and safety problems.

Fischer notes, however, that the Safeway workers union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, aren't advocating for stools either.
Interestingly, the union that represents Safeway checkers is pretty much in accord with the company. "Safeway designs checkstands to be as ergonomically beneficial as possible," says union spokeswoman Jill Cashen. "Sitting may actually make the work more difficult."
The cashiers seemed perplexed, but not too upset about the prospect of sitting, however.
At her Safeway, Sullivan found the cashiers to be grateful but a bit wary when she delivered the stools. "They looked at me like I was a crazy white woman," she says, "and that's a reasonable reaction. It sounds like I'm obsessed with this, but I'm really not: I'm a busy working mom with two kids, but I just thought this was stupid. I didn't want to just whine about it, so I did something."

Sullivan, an executive at Discovery Networks, isn't done rocking the boat. She's rallying support from neighborhood online bulletin boards. And even though her stools remain in storage, she's found herself shopping at the Safeway more often: "Ironically, it's making me more loyal to the store and to the people who work there."

Cashiers at the store told me they weren't allowed to talk about the stools. But they smiled broadly at the mention of the seats and the woman who donated them. "Tell her to come in and see us," one clerk said.

Another added: "We'll be here -- standing right here."

Update: Hazards Magazine has much more on the hazards of standing.