Safe Havens?

Offices may not present severe hazards of other work environments, but employers who ignore safety and health concerns risk serious and expensive problems.

When The Whitman Companies, an East Brunswick, N.J.-based environmental consulting firm, gets called by a building owner or manager, it is usually after they have an indoor air problem. "The attention that is placed on indoor air quality is dependent on how progressive the building owner or building manger is, but in most cases, they become attentive after complaints by tenants or people in the office," says Barry Skoultchi, Whitman vice president.

Perry Bonomo, president of ErgAerobics Inc., an ergonomics consulting firm in New York City, and co-author of Why Does Working at My Computer Hurt So Much?, says the same thing about ergonomic matters. "Employers are not doing enough; it's more of a patchwork type of thing," he says. "If someone complains, they'll do something about it."

Offices traditionally have been considered safe places to work, and it's true that they present less serious risks than other types of work environments, such as a manufacturing floor

or a construction site. Still, office work is not without hazards, some of which include musculoskeletal and repetitive trauma injuries related to computer use, respiratory illnesses stemming from indoor air quality, and high levels of stress, which are associated with a variety of factors, including task design.

Even though these hazards have been documented for years, most notably in the past decade, experts still agree that they're often overlooked by employers until serious problems occur.

In general, larger companies that can afford to hire consultants or have in-house specialists do better jobs proactively, notes Sheik Imrhan, Ph.D., professor of industrial engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington and author of Preventing Aches and Pains from Computer Work. "Smaller employers who can't afford to do that I think, in general, might be ignoring somebody's problems."

Why the lack of interest? "Whenever you have a health problem like this, people tend to regard it as 'money-consuming' rather than 'money-producing,'" Imrhan says. "And then," he adds, "there's another class of employers -- they might be big or small ones -- who simply don't believe there are any problems."

"The U.S. fares better than most countries, but there's still room for improvement," says Alan Hedge, Ph.D., professor of ergonomics at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. "Companies are losing money by ignoring the problems or by not being aware of them."

Scope of the Problem

Office workers may not face hard hat- or respirator-requiring hazards workers in other industries face, but health concerns affecting office workers can be far-reaching. "If you look at the number of office workers, they constitute by far the bulk of the work force," Cornell 's Hedge notes. "And the problems they experience can be lifelong problems."

It's hard to get a handle on the number of actual office workers in the United States because government statistics aren't kept that way. Still, it's clear that the number is in the tens of millions. As for the number of workers who use computers on the job in some capacity -- whether in an office building or on the plant floor -- Hedge puts the number at about 64 million.

The number of people who may already be developing problems is staggering. Researchers at Cornell University, Hedge says, have found that, at any given time, 50 percent to 80 percent of office workers are reporting some degree of musculoskeletal discomfort, with 5 percent having actual injuries. According to the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), experts estimate that about 1 million U.S. commercial buildings, including offices, have poor indoor air quality.

Common-Sense Approach

Many proactive measures, even though they're not always heeded, stem from common sense. ASHRAE, for instance, notes that more than half of indoor air problems in buildings are the result of inadequate or improperly operated and poorly maintained heating, ventilating and air-conditioning systems.

Ergonomic improvements often stem from a common-sense approach, although the University of Texas's Imrhan notes that it depends on where you start from. "If you have a very poorly designed office, then common-sense solutions will improve a lot," he says. "If it is fairly well-designed, then it requires a little more scientific knowledge to make another increment of improvement."

Consider these suggestions from experts:

Take worker complaints seriously. What makes it hard to realize that there's a facility problem with indoor air quality, for instance, is that these types of problems can be person-specific, affecting a person more sensitive to chemicals. "You may have Person A complain and Person B be a foot away and not have any complaints," says Skoultchi of The Whitman Companies.

Taking worker complaints -- all worker complaints -- seriously in regard to office safety and health matters is important, not the least of which may be reflected on the bottom line. Addressing minor problems is always more cost-effective than addressing major ones.

Litigation is another factor to consider. "A $10,000 claim could become a $100,000 problem if you don't treat the worker properly and take [the matter' seriously]" ErgAerobics' Bonomo says. Indeed, Marilyn Black, Ph.D., chairman and chief scientist for Air Quality Sciences Inc., an indoor air quality firm in Atlanta, says having already had a problem that involved litigation makes a "believer" out of a company. "It makes a pretty negative impact that's hard to overcome when you do have a significant issue in a building," she says.

Think before you act. Sometimes a little forethought can go a long way. Black recalls working with a multiple-story government facility where 30 of the 500 to 600 employees had filed indoor air quality-related workers' compensation cases. It turned out that the problem stemmed from incorrect placement of new systems office furniture, including cubicle wall partitions. "The furniture was put in without any thought as to how it could affect the ventilation flow in the building," Black says, which translated into inadequate air distribution and a buildup of chemicals emitted from the furniture.

"Once that problem was acknowledged, it was a very easy fix to reset the furniture so that it didn't interfere with the ventilation through the building," she says. "If you're going to be renovating or redoing your space, think about what impact it will have on your air quality."

Also, keep in mind that not only are "ergonomic" equipment and furniture available, so are construction materials and furniture that are safer for indoor use. In fact, Black's company certifies low-emitting construction materials and indoor furnishings through a program called Greenguard.

Training is key. The topic of employee training comes up again and again when talking with ergonomics experts. Employers who buy adjustable workstations and computer equipment in an effort to keep workers healthy may be losing some of that value by forgetting or ignoring necessary training. What's the benefit, ErgAerobics' Bonomo asks, of having an ergonomic chair if none of the adjustable parts, such as arm rests and the back support, are adjusted? What good is a monitor that you can raise or lower if you don't?

"We go into offices quite often doing training and, frankly, most people have equipment they don't know how to use," says Kerry Souza, director of the Coalition on New Office Technology, Boston.

Cost-cutting measures can come back to haunt you. Keith Bobrowski, an industrial hygienist with The Whitman Companies, points to a common error of judgment in building owners or managers. In trying to save heating or cooling costs, they lower the amount of fresh air that's brought into a building. The result is a buildup of carbon dioxide, which can make workers lethargic. The continued flow of stale air also adds to the spreading of illnesses, such as the flu. The result is higher absenteeism and lower productivity.

Whatever your interest in office safety and health, clearly the issue is not going away. OSHA is in the process of promulgating an ergonomics standard, and computer use is only going to continue to increase. "People who never thought of themselves as office workers are now spending more and more time on computers, no matter what their training was," Souza says. She points to social workers and health care workers as some of the types of employees who find they're doing more and more administrative work. "They never thought of themselves as office workers, but now are typing up all of their reports," she says.

Sandy Moretz is a freelance writer based in Atlanta. She is a former associate editor of Occupational Hazards.

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