Many white-collar employees exercise at the beginning of the day before going to work. But many blue-collar workers are required by their employers to exercise or stretch at the beginning of their shifts.
In my view, required workplace stretching or exercises creates many issues in workers’ compensation and employment law.
Hurt while stretching at work
If a worker is injured while doing employer-mandated exercises, that injury would be covered by workers compensation. The deeper issue about employer-mandated stretching and exercise is why employers mandate it in the first place. Stretching is thought to reduce the risk of musculoskeletal injuries which would be covered by workers’ compensation. But research is not entirely clear as to whether stretching reduces the risk of injury in the workplace.
Workplace stretching, ergonomics and wellness programs
Advocates of workplace stretching state that stretching is just one part of injury prevention. Employers also need to focus on ergonomics and other preventative measures in order to prevent injury. But, ICYMI, employers are not required by law to implement ergonomics programs. In fact, OSHA is prohibited by law from even considering mandatory ergonomics thanks to the Congressional Review Act.
Workplace stretching supporters also support employers using early intervention to address musculoskeletal injuries. But many employers don’t follow the advice offered on workplace wellness blogs. I have many clients, particularly in the livestock and meatpacking industries, that complain about soreness from overuse injuries. The response is often less than supportive from management. They are told that pain is just part of the job.
Workplace exercise and stretching and the ADA
Workplace exercise programs raise an immediate concern for workers with physical disabilities. Sometimes disabled workers are unable to complete stretches or exercises because of their disability. A refusal of to do these stretches could be construed as a refusal of work duties, so employees may feel pressured to complete the exercises and risk injury.
In my opinion, the best practice for an employee faced with this situation would be to get a medical note excusing them from exercises or stretches or allowing a modification. In other words, an employee needs to attempt to seek a reasonable accommodation for their disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. (ADA)
Sometimes employees can’t afford to go the doctor or can’t easily access medical care. I think an employee can still ask for an accommodation based off old restrictions or even on their own. But to be blunt, employers don’t always take self-reported restrictions seriously. That is often the case with courts as well if those self-reported restrictions lack basis in the medical records.
In short, it may be difficult for an employee to avoid being fired for refusing to perform mandatory exercises or stretching. But if push comes to proverbial shove in litigation, an employer may be in a tough spot if they fire an employee for refusing to do exercises. Disability discrimination laws protect qualified employees who can perform the essential function of their job with or without accommodation. Arguably stretches or exercises would not be an essential function of a job. This could be particularly true of an employee is able to do their job and or if the stretches have little to do with an employee’s job duties.
But litigation is time consuming and expensive. So an employee who is forced to do stretches that aggravate an old injury or health condition should try to work with a doctor and employer, if possible, to either get excused from the exercises or to get the exercises modified.
The ADA and wellness programs
The legal issues posed by mandatory stretching for injured and disabled employees reflects a more generalized concern about wellness programs under the ADA. Federal courts partially struck down an EEOC regulation about wellness programs as they discriminated against older and disabled workers. And like mandatory exercise and stretching, studies are inconclusive as to whether wellness programs benefit employees.
The presidential election and confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett have focused attention on potential changes to federal regulatory agencies and the federal courts. Narratives about regulatory agencies and courts often pose Democrats as pro-worker and Republicans as anti-worker. But the EEOC enacted the wellness program regulation during the Obama administration as part of the Affordable Care Act. Conservatives often argue against deferring to regulations issued by executive agencies based on separation of powers arguments. But in this case, workers used a separation of powers argument to strike down an anti-worker policy.