The Power of Light

The Power of Light

The key to boosting safety, ergonomics and productivity could be right in front of your nose (or right above your head).

It would be impossible to do your job safely in the dark – let alone do your job at all. That much is obvious. Often overlooked, however, is the fact that improper workplace lighting presents a number of safety and health hazards. 

Poor workplace lighting can come in the form of insufficient light, too much light (glare), improper contrast or poorly distributed light. The potential consequences range from eye strain to back injuries to slips, trips and falls.

 A poorly lit manufacturing cell can make it difficult to judge the relative position of machines, materials and tools, making operators vulnerable to cuts, scrapes, burns and other mishaps.

But the potential impact of improper lighting isn't always so cut and dry. In an office where glare or poor contrast is an issue, workers might lean and bend to view their computer screens. Over time, the sustained awkward postures can lead to neck and back strains and other upper-body ailments.  

Likewise, poor lighting can lead to – or exacerbate – eye strain, which can cause headaches in the near term and perhaps more serious vision issues in the long term. 

"The immediate consequences aren't really there," says Blake McGowan, CPE, managing consultant and ergonomics engineer for Humantech Inc. "It's a long-term consequence, and most of us aren't dealing with long-term consequences."

Lighting also has an effect on productivity, even if that relationship isn't readily apparent to the naked eye either. "The productivity side of it is understandable but maybe not as well-quantified," McGowan says. 

The connection is there, however. "If you can't see what you're doing during assembly, you're going to be making more mistakes, and it's going to take you longer to do the same tasks," McGowan says. 

Same goes for the employee who has to tilt his or her neck in an awkward fashion to minimize the glare on the computer screen.

"All of these things cause you to slow down, which means you're going to be a little less productive," McGowan says. 

Task-Specific Lighting

McGowan sees a parallel between the evolution of ergonomics and lighting. Much like with ergonomics a few decades ago, employers today are a bit more reactive than proactive when it comes to utilizing lighting as an EHS tool, he says.

"I think [employers] are paying attention to it," he says. "They may need to pay attention to it a little bit more."

In an office environment, for example, an employer or building owner might install overhead lighting that meets the basic standards prescribed by the Illuminating Engineering Society. When it comes time to design the individual workstations, though, aesthetics often triumph over ergonomics. 

"Big picture, we typically provide the right amount of what I call ‘global lighting,' but there's still a large gap in providing individual-specific lighting," McGowan says. 

"We do a good job [with lighting] for the size of a building. For the size of a workstation – the size within 30 inches of where a person reaches – we don't do a very good job."

In many cases, employers address workplace lighting in earnest only after there's an eye-related injury or illness or after a worker complains of discomfort. McGowan, though, asserts that lighting should be viewed as a fundamental element of an EHS program – one that's just as important as machine guarding, PPE, signage and other safety tools. 

"You can only address so much, and the top priorities get most of the attention, but I don't think it's any different," he says. "I don't think it's overlooked, but I think [employers] are going just barely beyond the standards."

Energy Savings and More

The benefits of proper lighting extend beyond ergonomics, safety and productivity. New lighting technology – LEDs, in particular – can deliver dramatic energy savings over older bulbs. 

LEDs consume just a fraction of the electricity that incandescent bulbs use. And they have a rated life of 50,000 hours – compared with 1,200 hours for incandescent bulbs and 10,000 hours for compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs).

Longer life means less frequent replacement, which means fewer disruptions in a manufacturing facility or office.

"There are plenty of facilities that replace their light bulbs on more of an ad hoc basis that can leverage the length of life of this new lighting," explains Michael Connors, CEO of bulbs.com. "If the bulbs last longer, you have people spending less time on scaffolding or cherry pickers or whatever they use [to replace lights] in that facility." 

In some work environments, LEDs offer a clear safety advantage over older bulbs. In loading docks, for example, Connors notes that LEDs are far more durable than the halogen reflector floodlights that were common up until a few years ago.

"Even in protected fixtures, those [halogen] bulbs break all the time," Connors says. Because LEDs don't contain a filament, "the LED replacements are much less fragile. To say that the frequency of replacement is comparatively less is an understatement. They don't get damaged the way the halogen bulbs do."

There's also the benefit of better heat management. LEDs and CFLs generate up to 90 percent less heat than traditional incandescent bulbs, Connors notes. In the summer, that can translate to a cool savings in air-conditioning costs.

Making the Case for New Lighting

Although LEDs offer a number of advantages over other light bulbs, cost is not one of them. Connors estimates that LEDs are as much as 15 times more expensive than other lighting products (although users recoup that investment, over time, in the form of lower energy consumption). 

If championing an investment in new or retrofitted lighting seems like a tricky proposition, Humantech's McGowan recommends piggybacking on a department outside EHS to gain some leverage.

For example, an EHS professional might work with the quality manager to establish a linkage between quality issues and poor lighting.

"It's like a lot of things in health and safety," McGowan explains. "It's seeking out that other group that is maybe more established and has a larger annual budget and saying, ‘How can we partner together, because this improvement can help both of us.'" 

For EHS professionals who have decided to switch to LED lighting, Connors offers another piece of advice: Start slowly, because there are "subtle differences" between the performance of LEDs and traditional light bulbs.

"It's always better, in our estimation, to start with a test program and say, ‘OK, we're going to light up this workstation or this department or this conference room' or whatever it happens to be, rather than saying, ‘OK, we're going to spend $75,000 to relamp the entire shop floor,'" Connors says. "We tell everybody, ‘Walk before you run.'" It would be impossible to do your job safely in the dark – let alone do your job at all. That much is obvious. Often overlooked, however, is the fact that improper workplace lighting presents a number of safety and health hazards. 

Poor workplace lighting can come in the form of insufficient light, too much light (glare), improper contrast or poorly distributed light. The potential consequences range from eye strain to back injuries to slips, trips and falls.

 A poorly lit manufacturing cell can make it difficult to judge the relative position of machines, materials and tools, making operators vulnerable to cuts, scrapes, burns and other mishaps.

But the potential impact of improper lighting isn't always so cut and dry. In an office where glare or poor contrast is an issue, workers might lean and bend to view their computer screens. Over time, the sustained awkward postures can lead to neck and back strains and other upper-body ailments.  

Likewise, poor lighting can lead to – or exacerbate – eye strain, which can cause headaches in the near term and perhaps more serious vision issues in the long term. 

"The immediate consequences aren't really there," says Blake McGowan, CPE, managing consultant and ergonomics engineer for Humantech Inc. "It's a long-term consequence, and most of us aren't dealing with long-term consequences."

Lighting also has an effect on productivity, even if that relationship isn't readily apparent to the naked eye either. "The productivity side of it is understandable but maybe not as well-quantified," McGowan says. 

The connection is there, however. "If you can't see what you're doing during assembly, you're going to be making more mistakes, and it's going to take you longer to do the same tasks," McGowan says. 

Same goes for the employee who has to tilt his or her neck in an awkward fashion to minimize the glare on the computer screen.

"All of these things cause you to slow down, which means you're going to be a little less productive," McGowan says. 

Task-Specific Lighting

McGowan sees a parallel between the evolution of ergonomics and lighting. Much like with ergonomics a few decades ago, employers today are a bit more reactive than proactive when it comes to utilizing lighting as an EHS tool, he says.

"I think [employers] are paying attention to it," he says. "They may need to pay attention to it a little bit more."

In an office environment, for example, an employer or building owner might install overhead lighting that meets the basic standards prescribed by the Illuminating Engineering Society. When it comes time to design the individual workstations, though, aesthetics often triumph over ergonomics. 

"Big picture, we typically provide the right amount of what I call ‘global lighting,' but there's still a large gap in providing individual-specific lighting," McGowan says. 

"We do a good job [with lighting] for the size of a building. For the size of a workstation – the size within 30 inches of where a person reaches – we don't do a very good job."

In many cases, employers address workplace lighting in earnest only after there's an eye-related injury or illness or after a worker complains of discomfort. McGowan, though, asserts that lighting should be viewed as a fundamental element of an EHS program – one that's just as important as machine guarding, PPE, signage and other safety tools. 

"You can only address so much, and the top priorities get most of the attention, but I don't think it's any different," he says. "I don't think it's overlooked, but I think [employers] are going just barely beyond the standards."

Energy Savings and More

The benefits of proper lighting extend beyond ergonomics, safety and productivity. New lighting technology – LEDs, in particular – can deliver dramatic energy savings over older bulbs. 

LEDs consume just a fraction of the electricity that incandescent bulbs use. And they have a rated life of 50,000 hours – compared with 1,200 hours for incandescent bulbs and 10,000 hours for compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs).

Longer life means less frequent replacement, which means fewer disruptions in a manufacturing facility or office.

"There are plenty of facilities that replace their light bulbs on more of an ad hoc basis that can leverage the length of life of this new lighting," explains Michael Connors, CEO of bulbs.com. "If the bulbs last longer, you have people spending less time on scaffolding or cherry pickers or whatever they use [to replace lights] in that facility." 

In some work environments, LEDs offer a clear safety advantage over older bulbs. In loading docks, for example, Connors notes that LEDs are far more durable than the halogen reflector floodlights that were common up until a few years ago.

"Even in protected fixtures, those [halogen] bulbs break all the time," Connors says. Because LEDs don't contain a filament, "the LED replacements are much less fragile. To say that the frequency of replacement is comparatively less is an understatement. They don't get damaged the way the halogen bulbs do."

There's also the benefit of better heat management. LEDs and CFLs generate up to 90 percent less heat than traditional incandescent bulbs, Connors notes. In the summer, that can translate to a cool savings in air-conditioning costs.

Making the Case for New Lighting

Although LEDs offer a number of advantages over other light bulbs, cost is not one of them. Connors estimates that LEDs are as much as 15 times more expensive than other lighting products (although users recoup that investment, over time, in the form of lower energy consumption). 

If championing an investment in new or retrofitted lighting seems like a tricky proposition, Humantech's McGowan recommends piggybacking on a department outside EHS to gain some leverage.

For example, an EHS professional might work with the quality manager to establish a linkage between quality issues and poor lighting.

Blake McGowan

"It's like a lot of things in health and safety," McGowan explains. "It's seeking out that other group that is maybe more established and has a larger annual budget and saying, ‘How can we partner together, because this improvement can help both of us.'" 

For EHS professionals who have decided to switch to LED lighting, Connors offers another piece of advice: Start slowly, because there are "subtle differences" between the performance of LEDs and traditional light bulbs.

"It's always better, in our estimation, to start with a test program and say, ‘OK, we're going to light up this workstation or this department or this conference room' or whatever it happens to be, rather than saying, ‘OK, we're going to spend $75,000 to relamp the entire shop floor,'" Connors says. "We tell everybody, ‘Walk before you run.'" 

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