As you assess risks in your workplace that could cause an employee’s death, should you add “sitting too long in front of a computer” to the list? A potential adverse effect of sitting too long at a job is key to a recent workers’ comp court case.
Cathleen Renner was a salaried manager for AT&T. When she worked at home, she sat at her computer for long hours to meet deadlines. Although her job was considered “nine-to-five,” she worked all hours of the day and night.
One day while working at home, Renner called 9-1-1 because she couldn’t breathe. She was pronounced dead when she arrived at the hospital. Cause of death: a pulmonary embolism.
Renner’s husband applied for dependency benefits under workers’ compensation.
A doctor, an expert for Renner’s widower, said sitting for an extended time can lead to a slowing or stoppage of blood flow which can lead to clots.
The doctor concluded that Renner’s sitting at her desk for long periods of time contributed to her death to an appreciable degree. The physician acknowledged that Renner had other risk factors, including obesity and using birth control pills.
The doctor reasoned that her inactivity while working was to blame because the blood clot was “unorganized” and developed within the period when she was working.
Acting as a medical witness for AT&T, a second doctor said Renner’s pulmonary embolism was caused by a combination of her various risk factors. But even that doctor admitted “it would certainly be less likely” for Renner to have a pulmonary embolism that day had she not been working.
A workers’ compensation judge concluded that the claim was compensable because most of her inactivity occurred while she was working.
AT&T appealed the decision to a state court.
Sedentary at work or home?
The court said there were two questions that needed to be addressed:
- whether Renner’s lack of movement at work was more severe than her lack of movement in her daily living, and
- whether the inactivity at work was an appreciable factor in causing her pulmonary embolism.
Renner’s husband testified that Cathleen wasn’t the type to sit at home and watch TV. She was always on the go, picking up their kids from activities, meeting friends, etc.
The court also found there was sufficient evidence that Renner had worked through the night in the hours before her embolism.
The judges also said an autopsy report, which indicated Renner’s clot was unorganized, supported the testimony that the embolism was recently formed, most likely five to seven hours before her death.
The court ruled that the requirements of New Jersey’s workers’ comp law for a claim for injury or death from a cardiovascular cause had been met.
For those reasons, the court upheld the decision by the workers’ compensation judge to award dependency benefits to Renner’s widower.
A side note: The decision in this case comes on the heels of an American Cancer Society study that showed sitting too much can shave years off your life.
What do you think about the court’s decision? Let us know in the Comments Box below.
(Renner v. AT&T, Superior Crt. of NJ, 6/27/11)