Office-Related Illness and Injury
The leading types of disabling accidents that occur within the office are the result of falls, strains and overexertions, falling objects, striking against objects, and being caught in or between objects.
Falls are the most common office accident, accounting for the greatest number of disabling injuries. The disabling injury rate of falls among office workers is 2 to 2.5 times higher than the rate for non-office employees. A fall occurs when you lose your balance and footing. One of the most common causes of office falls is tripping over an open desk or file drawer. Bending while seated in an unstable chair and tripping over electrical cords or wires are other common hazards. Office falls are frequently caused by slipping on wet floors or using a chair or stack of boxes in place of a ladder. Loose carpeting, objects stored in halls or walkways, and inadequate lighting are other hazards that
invite accidental falls. Fortunately, all of these fall hazards are preventable. The following checklist can help stop a fall before it happens.
- Be sure the pathway is clear before you walk.
- Close drawers completely after every use.
- Avoid excessive bending, twisting, and leaning backward while seated.
- Secure electrical cords and wires away from walkways.
- Always use a stepladder for overhead reaching. Chairs should never be used as ladders.
- Clean up or report spills immediately.
- Pick up objects co-workers may have left on the floor.
- Report loose carpeting or damaged flooring.
- Never carry anything that obscures your vision.
- Wear stable shoes with non-slip soles.
If you find yourself heading for a fall, remember to roll, don’t reach. By letting your body crumple and roll, you are more likely to absorb the impact and momentum of a fall without injury. Reaching out an arm or leg to break your fall may result in a broken limb instead.
Strains and Overexertion
Although a typical office job may not involve lifting large or especially heavy objects, it’s important to follow the principles of safe lifting. Small, light loads (i.e., stacks of files, boxes of computer paper, books) can wreak havoc on your back, neck, and shoulders if you use your body incorrectly when you lift them. Backs are especially vulnerable; most back injuries result from improper lifting. Before you pick up a carton or load, ask yourself these questions:
- Is this too heavy for me to lift and carry alone?
- How high do I have to lift it?
- How far do I have to carry it?
- Am I trying to impress anyone by lifting this?
- If you feel that the lift is beyond your ability, contact your supervisor or ask another employee to assist you.
Safe Lifting Steps
- Take a balanced stance, feet placed shoulder-width apart. When lifting something from the floor, squat close to the load.
- Keep your back in its neutral or straight position. Tuck in you chin so your head and neck continue the straight back line.
- Grip the object with your whole hand, rather than only with your fingers.
- Draw the object close to you, holding your elbows close to your body to keep the load and your body weight centered.
- Lift by straightening your legs. Let your leg muscles, not your back muscles, do the work. Tighten your stomach muscles to help support your back.
- Maintain your neutral back position as you lift.
- Never twist when lifting. When you must turn with a load, turn your whole body, feet first.
- Never carry a load that blocks your vision.
- To set something down, use the same body mechanics designed for lifting.
Lifting from a Seated Position
Bending from a seated position and coming back up places tremendous strain on your back. Also, your chair could be unstable and slip out from under you. Instead, stand and move your chair out of the way. Squat and stand whenever you have to retrieve something from the floor
Ergonomic Solutions to Backbreaking Tasks
- If you are doing a lot of twisting while lifting, try to rearrange the space to avoid this. People who have to twist under a load are more likely to suffer back injury.
- Rotate through tasks so that periods of standing alternate with moving or sitting. Ask for stools or footrests for stationary jobs.
- Store materials at knee level whenever possible instead of on the floor.
- Make shelves shallower (12-18") so one does not have to reach forward to lift the object.
- Break up loads so each weighs less. If your must carry a heavy object some distance, consider storing it closer, request a table to rest it on, or try to use a hand truck or cart to transport it.
Struck By or Striking Objects
Striking against objects is another cause of office injuries. Incidents of this type include:
- Bumping into doors, desks, file cabinets, and open drawers.
- Bumping into other people while walking.
- Striking open file drawers while bending down or straightening up.
- Striking against sharp objects such as office machines, spindle files, staples, and pins.
Pay attention to where you are walking at all times, properly store materials in your work area and never carry objects that prevent you from seeing ahead of you.
Objects striking employees occur as a result of:
- Office supplies sliding from shelves or cabinet tops.
- Overbalanced file cabinets in which two or more drawers were opened at the same time or in which the file drawer was pulled out too far.
- Machines, such as computers or monitors that were dropped on feet.
- Doors that were opened suddenly from the other side.
- Proper material storage and use of storage devices can avoid these accidents.
Caught In or Between Objects
The last category of leading disabling incidents occurs as a result of office workers who get their fingers or articles of clothing caught in or between objects. Office workers may be injured as a result of:
- Fingers caught in a drawer, door, or window.
- Fingers, hair or articles of clothing and jewelry caught in office machines.
- Fingers caught under the blade of a paper cutter.
- While working on office equipment, concentrate on what you are doing.
Improperly stored office materials can lead to objects falling on workers, poor visibility, and create a fire hazard. A good housekeeping program will reduce or eliminate hazards associated with improper storage of materials. Examples of improper storage include unstable piling, piling materials too high, and obstructing doors, aisles, fire exits and fire-fighting equipment. The following are good storage practices:
Boxes, papers, and other materials should not be stored on top of lockers or file cabinets because they can cause sliding problems. Boxes and cartons should all be of uniform size in any pile or stack. Always stack material in such a way that it will not fall over.
- Store heavy objects on lower shelves.
- Try to store materials inside cabinets, files, and lockers.
- Office equipment such as computers, monitors, index files, lights or calculators should not be placed on the edges of a desk, filing cabinet, or table.
- Aisles, corners, and passageways must remain unobstructed. There should be no stacking of materials in these areas.
- Storage areas should be designated and used only for that purpose.
- Store heavy materials so you do not have to reach across something to retrieve them.
Fire equipment, extinguishers, fire door exits, and sprinkler heads should remain unobstructed. Materials should be at least 18 inches minimum away from sprinkler heads.
Ergonomics means fitting the workplace to the workers by modifying or redesigning the job, workstation, tool or environment. Workstation design can have a significant impact on office workers health and well-being. There are a multitude of discomforts, which can result from ergonomically incorrect computer workstation setups. The most common complaints relate to the neck, shoulders, and back. Others concern the arms and hands and occasionally the eyes. For example, poorly designed chairs and/or bad postures can cause lower back strain; or a chair that is too high can cause circulation loss in the legs and feet. Certain common characteristics of computer workstation tasks have been identified and associated with increased risk of musculoskeletal problems. These include:
- Design of the workstation
- Nature of the task
- Repetitiveness of the job
- Degree of postural constraint
- Work pace
- Work/rest schedules
- Personal attributes of individual workers
- key to comfort is in maintaining the body in a relaxed, neutral position. The ideal work position is to have the arms hanging relaxed from the shoulders. If a keyboard is used, arms should be bent at right angles at the elbow, with the hands held in a straight line with forearms and elbows close to the body. The head should be in line with the body and slightly forward.
Arranging Your Workstation to Fit You
- Adjust the height of the chair’s seat such that the thighs are horizontal while the feet are flat on the floor.
- Adjust the seat pan depth such that your back is supported by the chair back rest while the back of the knee is comfortable relative to the front of the seat.
- Adjust the back rest vertically so that it supports/fits the curvature of your lower back.
- With the arms at your sides and the elbow joint approximately 90 degrees, adjust the height/position of the chair armrests to support the forearms.
- Adjust the height of the keyboard such that the fingers rest on the keyboard home row when the arm is to the side, elbow at 90 degrees, and the wrist straight.
- Place the mouse, trackball, or special keypads, next to the keyboard tray. Keep the wrist in a neutral position with the arm and hand close to the body.
- Adjust the height of the monitor such that the top of the screen is at eye level. If bifocals/trifocals are used, place the monitor at a height that allows easy viewing without tipping the head back.
- Place reference documents on a document holder close to the screen and at the same distance from the eye.
A footrest may be necessary if the operator cannot rest his/her feet comfortably on the floor.
Applying Good Work Practices
The way a task is performed and the workstation environment it is performed in can influence the risk of injury and general work productivity. Good technique can make a job easy and safe to accomplish. Good work practices include
- Adjusting the drapes or blinds.
- Moving the monitor away from sources of glare or direct light.
- Tipping the monitor slightly downward.
- Using diffusers on overhead lighting.
- Placing an anti-glare filter on the screen.
- Clean the monitor screen on a regular basis
- Avoid cradling the telephone between the head and shoulder. Hold the phone with your hand, use the speaker phone, or a headset.
- Keep frequently used items like the telephone, reference materials, and pens/pencils within easy reach.
- Position the monitor and keyboard directly in front of the user.
- Move between different postures regularly.
- Apply task lighting as to your needs.
- Use the minimum force necessary to strike the keyboard/ten-key keys.
- Use the minimum force necessary to activate the hole punch and stapler.
- Vary your tasks to avoid a long period of one activity.
- Take mini-breaks to rest the eyes and muscles. A break does not have to be a stop of work duties. However, it should be a different style of physical activity such as changing from keyboarding to using the telephone or filing.
- Neutralize distracting noise by using ear plugs, playing soft music, or turning on a fan.
- Maintain a comfortable workplace temperature by using layers of clothing or a fan.
Indoor Air Quality and Ventilation
Indoor air quality (IAQ) is an increasingly important issue in the work environment. The study of indoor air quality and pollutant levels within office environments is a complex problem. The complexity of studying and measuring the quality of office environments arises from various factors including:
- Office building floor plans are frequently changing to accommodate increasingly more employees and reorganization.
- Office buildings frequently undergo building renovations such as installation of new carpet, modular office partitions and freestanding offices, and painting.
- Many of the health symptoms appearing are vague and common both to the office and home environment.
- Guidelines or standards for permissible personal exposure limits to pollutants within office buildings are very limited.
Many times odors are associated with chemical contaminants from inside or outside the office space, or from the building fabric. This is particularly noticeable following building renovation or installation of new carpeting. Out-gassing from such things as paints, adhesives, sealants, office furniture, carpeting, and vinyl wall coverings is the source of a variety of irritant compounds. In most cases, these chemical contaminants can be measured at levels above ambient (normal background) but are far below any existing occupational evaluation criteria.
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has conducted hundreds of building studies which indicate that the most likely sources of IAQ complaints are poor ventilation, poor thermal conditions (too hot or too cold), relative humidity (too high or too low), poor ergonomic layout of office space, emissions from office machines, copiers, and other building contaminants.
Overview of Ventilation Design
Air enters office buildings or spaces through both mechanical ventilation systems as well as naturally through leaks around windows, doors, etc. Newer, larger buildings that are highly energy efficient due to sealed windows and heavy insulation primarily depend on mechanical ventilation. Older, smaller, and low occupancy office buildings can be adequately ventilated through natural sources which include air leakage through opened windows and doors, as well as through cracks in the windows and walls, and other openings.
In a modern office building, the heating ventilation and air conditioning system (HVAC) is designed to keep occupants comfortable and healthy by controlling the amount of outside air that is added to the building atmosphere, filtering both incoming and recirculated air to remove particulates and controlling the temperature. The HVAC system includes all heating, cooling, and ventilation equipment serving a building including furnaces or boilers, chillers, cooling towers, air handling units, exhaust fans, ductwork, filters, steam (or heating water) piping. A ventilation system consists of a blower to move the air, ductwork to deliver air to the room, and vents to distribute the air.
A good ventilation design will distribute supply air uniformly to each area and especially areas with office machines. An effectively designed area will not have the supply and exhaust vent too close together because fresh air may be removed before it is adequately distributed throughout the area. Exhaust fans are often located a significant distance away from supply vents. A simple way to determine if the ventilation system is running or if a vent is a supply or exhaust is to hold a tissue near the vent. If the tissue moves, the air is being circulated and the direction the tissue is blown will determine the type of vent.
The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has established a general guideline of 20 cubic feet of outside air per minute/per person for an office environment. This is a sufficient amount of air to dilute building contaminants and maintain a healthy environment. Indoor air quality complaints increase significantly in offices that are not supplied sufficient outside air.
A ventilation system should provide for a comfortable environment with respect to humidity and temperature. The overall goal of climate control is to provide an environment that is not too cold, hot, dry or humid, and that is free from drafts and odors. Humidity refers to the amount of moisture in the air and extremes in humidification levels can influence how comfortable you may be. When the air is too humid, it makes people feel uncomfortable (wet, clammy) and can promote mold growth.
On the other hand, low humidity conditions (which typically occur in the winter months) dry out the nasal and respiratory passages. Static electricity problems (affecting hair and clothes, particularly synthetic fibers) are good indicators of an office with low relative humidity.
Excessively high or low temperatures in an office area can also lead to symptoms in building occupants and reduce productivity. High temperatures have been associated with fatigue, lassitude, irritability, headache and decrease in performance, coordination and alertness. A number of factors interact to determine whether people are comfortable with the temperature of the indoor air. The activity level, age, and physiology of each person affect the thermal comfort requirements of that individual. Extreme heat, which is unlikely to be found in an office environment, can result in heat rash, exhaustion, and fainting. Workers who may be less alert or fatigued from a high temperature environment may be more prone to accidents. Likewise, if the environment is too cold, flexibility, dexterity, and judgment may be impaired and therefore accidents may increase.
The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has published guidelines for maintaining comfortable and productive work environments. According to ASHRAE, these temperature ranges represent the environmental conditions which 80% of the building occupants consider comfortable. ASHRAE recommends the following temperature and humidity ranges for office work:
Winter Temperature Range
Summer Temperature Range
68.5 - 76.0 F
74.0 - 80.0 F
68.5 - 75.5 F
73.5 - 79.5 F
68.5 - 74.5 F
73.0 - 79.0 F
68.0 - 74.0 F
72.5 - 78.0 F