Occupational Health and Safety for the Office: Top 10
When people think about occupational health and safety, they tend to think about industrial workplaces, littered with warning signs about hardhats, harnesses, steel-toe boots, and hazmat suits. But in quieter corners of the workforce, where the buzz of band saws is otherworldly compared to the hum of Hewlett Packards and the clatter of hammers is replaced by the tapping of keyboards, dangers – not to mention occupational health and safety violations – lurk. And not just in the form of psychological health and safety. The following is a top 10 list of the most commonly overlooked office safety hazards that every employer would do well to investigate.
Desk clutter poses little more than an ergonomic hazard (see below), but clutter on the floor in various areas can pose serious occupational health and safety threats. Piled boxes, bunched up electrical cords, and strewn-about office supplies can constitute a gauntlet even Indiana Jones would think twice about. Trips, cuts, and even fires are all potential consequences of treating parts of your office like a junkyard. Such clutter may also obscure sprinklers, fire exits, and fire extinguishers or hoses. Bottom line: clean up the clutter and keep it clear.
The hazards posed by corners are inherent in office design. If you’re not in an open-concept layout, it’s easy for coworkers careening around the sharp corners of narrow corridors to collide into a plume of printer paper, ballpoint pens, and binder clips. Turn a corner of your own by installing convex mirrors. Attention: Occupational health and safety is closer than it appears.
While many organizations believe it’s a mark of prestige to cover their floors in Italian marble for that ancient empire look, it’s important to remember that marble, and other smooth flooring, especially when polished or wet, can be as perilous as ice. Since you can’t force your employees to wear only rubber soles, it’s worth looking into carpets, or at least putting some rugs down. Carpets and rugs not only increase friction, but they help cushion falls.
Although stiletto shoes aren’t as deadly as the dagger they’re named for, they, along with other high heels, still present significant risks – and not just because they increase the likelihood of falling down. High heels put great stress on the Achilles tendon. Female employees should therefore be encouraged to wear shorter heels or flats in the workplace.
The enemies of ergonomics are many, from non-adjustable chairs and monitors to mousepads without wrist supports. They’re insidious, causing injuries that gradually get worse, often without the victim noticing a problem until it’s chronic. Although ergonomic furniture and instruments can be relatively expensive, they’re cheap compared to injury claims.
What damage can light do? More than you might think. Too much light is a common problem in many offices and can cause stress, fatigue, headaches, and even cardiovascular problems. Let in natural sunlight if possible, particularly since fluorescent lights are often the culprit of over illumination. In fact, finding the right light bulbs can be tricky. Incandescent bulbs are more comfortable, but use more energy. Many suggest turning to CFLs and LEDs, which are more efficient, but whose health risks (such as secretion of heavy metals) are still hotly debated.
It’s no mystery that staring at a computer monitor for a long period of time can cause eye strain, headaches, and other maladies. So how do you deal with an occupational health and safety threat tied to something as integral as a computer monitor? Encourage employees to take breaks. That’s the best solution. They should also play with the contrast and brightness settings of their monitors to find what levels will be the most readable to them.
There are chemicals everywhere – from cleaning substances to pesticides to printer toner particulates. Hazardous emissions can come from outside, but they can be 10 times more concentrated indoors. Substances, such as the ones mentioned, can cause fatigue, eye irritation, and respiratory problems, especially for those with asthma. Employees should not be seated too close to photocopiers, printers, or fax machines. And to improve overall air quality, incorporate potted plants throughout the office and open windows on nice days if possible.
One of the most common places you’ll find norovirus, a.k.a., the stomach flu, is in the coffee pot in the office kitchen. The coffee pot should be regularly cleaned using bleach, and your staff should follow basic rules for keeping the office kitchen clean, including regularly scheduled fridge cleanouts, washing and drying used dishes as soon as possible, and using a cover when microwaving food.
Typically a seasonal office safety hazard, space heaters can easily become fire risks if not properly set up and monitored. First, no employee should utilize a space heater without the permission of their supervisor. Once permission is given, space heaters should always be placed three feet away from anything that can catch fire. Nothing else should be plugged into the outlet, and extension cords are out of the question. There should always be someone present when a space heater is on and space heaters should always be unplugged at the end of the day.