We often think of work related physical injury in terms of industries like construction, mining, forestry or manufacturing. And while it’s true that these types of jobs do present certain risks, there can also be many hazards found in office settings.
Now, if the thought of being seated for most of the day, talking on the phone and working on a computer in a climate-controlled environment doesn’t stir visions of real danger, the office space can offer its own unique set of safety issues. Every year, there are tens of thousands of injuries and lost time reported that range from falls and ergonomic issues to fire and other medical emergencies. Luckily, many of these injuries could have been prevented, had workers or management personnel recognized the risks and implemented simple workplace modifications to help mitigate them.
Planning & Administrative Controls
In addition to employee training and utilizing the proper equipment in your office, certain administrative controls can aid hazard recognition and the elimination of potentially dangerous situations.
- Periodically conduct walk-throughs of the office areas to help with identifying potential physical risks (including fire) to employees. These should take place several times per year and include representation from management, maintenance, HR, security and your health & safety committee if you have one. Ensure that you develop a formal plan to address any issues that are uncovered, and include specific levels of responsibility and timelines for completion.
- Screen all workstations for ergonomic best practices and compliance at least once per year.
- Recognizing the symptoms of musculoskeletal disorders and identifying problem areas can alert employees to the need for potential alterations to how they work and the equipment that they use on a daily basis. Be sure to provide resources and training to employees on the best approach to overall office ergonomics.
- Establishing an employee reporting system can be one of the best ways for organizations to get a handle on potential hazards before they cause injury. Keeping lines of communication open allows for early intervention and the best results.
You’ve Fallen And You Can’t Get Up
Falls in the office continue to be one of the most common forms of injury according to occupational health & safety statistics. The good news is that most all of them are preventable with a little common sense and awareness.
- For the most part, a lot of falls can be avoided simply by being aware of your surroundings. The key point being that you need to keep your head up and pay attention. If you’re distracted or have your face buried in a smart phone while walking, you’re taking chances.
- Keep walkways and traffic areas clear of debris, boxes or anything else that people could trip over
- For ‘blind’ corners, be sure to install convex mirror units to help avoid any head-on crashes
- Maintaining good lighting, especially in more remote areas such as storerooms or back exits helps to highlight any potential trouble for pedestrians
- Although it may be tempting, try and avoid standing on an office chair, desk or stack of boxes to reach something up high. Use a proper ladder or call Maintenance for help.
- Many office workers trip over open filing cabinet drawers. Always close these drawers completely as soon as they are not in use.
Adopt good housekeeping and maintenance habits by:
- Cleaning spills & mopping wet floors immediately
- Marking slippery areas with signs
- Using floor mats where necessary
- Repairing any loose carpet or flooring right away
- Covering cables or cords that cross walkways
Long-term musculoskeletal injuries can sneak up on you over time, and if you don’t address the risk, they can be quite debilitating. Most of these types of injuries are caused by a combination of poor body positioning, repetitive movement, inadequate office equipment or environment and being stationary for long periods of time.
Working in front of a computer screen all day doesn’t actually damage your eyes, but it can lead to eyestrain and headaches.
- Dim your overhead lights if possible and use a task lamp on your desk?to provide an optimal light level for work
- Lower your monitor so that it sits slightly below eye level and 20 – 26 inches from your eyes
- Position monitors to minimize glare from other light sources or use an anti-glare filter
- If you wear glasses, be sure that they are suitable for computer distance
- Increase the font size on your computer to avoid both eye and neck strain
- Give your eyes a break from your screen. Working on other tasks for about 10 minutes every hour allows your eyes to ‘re-set’ by focusing on objects at other distances.
Hands & Wrists
Poor wrist ergonomics account for the most reported injuries and lost time in office environments. Tendonitis and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome are the worst culprits and involve nerve or soft tissue damage due to overexertion and repetitive movement from keyboard work.
- From a position standpoint, your lower arm should be parallel to the floor with your wrists straight. Try to avoid bending your wrists or reaching up to the keyboard.
- Type and mouse lightly. Your keyboard knows who’s boss, so you don’t need to pound so heavily all day.
- The cushioned wrist supports on some keyboards and mouse pads are there more for a guide to height for your wrists and aren’t really meant to be a base to lean on. Lower your arms to rest on them only while not actively typing.
- Try stretching your hands and wrists throughout the day to help avoid the long-term effects of repetitive movement.
Seating & Posture
Over time, using a workstation that does not fit your body can result in musculoskeletal problems involving your neck, shoulders and back. Most of this is preventable though with the proper equipment and some good habits.
- Where possible, utilize adjustable chairs, work surfaces and monitor stands etc. to provide an optimal workstation for each individual. We all aren’t built the same, so it would stand to reason that we need a little customization for our workspace. Also ensure that all workers understand what is available to them and what the benefits are.
- Speaking of adjustable chairs, this is probably one of the most important items in your office for long-term comfort and productivity. There are a lot of features available, so be sure to adjust your chair so that:
- Both you lower and mid-back are well supported
- Your thighs are horizontal to the floor, with no pressure behind your knees
- Your feet can sit flat on the floor (if not, use a footrest)
- Your arms bend comfortably at a 90-degree angle with your shoulders in a relaxed position
- Adjust your computer monitor so that the top of the screen is at or slightly below your eye level. If it is too low or too high, you will experience neck strain over time.
- Use a document holder so that your papers can be kept at the same level as your computer monitor
- Keep your keyboard directly in front of your body and in a position where your lower arm and wrists can stay in a straight line. Be sure to keep your mouse right beside the keyboard and at the same level.
Determine what items on your desk you use most often and keep them within easy arm’s reach. Try to avoid leaning, bending or twisting to retrieve the things you know you’re going to need.
Fire Safety & Emergency Planning
An office fire or other emergency situation can be devastating, resulting in the loss of life, business interruption or permanent closure, loss of jobs, property and other valuable business assets. Having a plan and taking some precautionary steps are your best bet to being prepared.
- Establish a formal fire and emergency plan for your business that addresses all aspects of responsibility, communication, procedures, equipment and evacuation. Review and update this plan on a regular basis and be sure to publish it internally so that everyone fully understands the process.
- Establish and train designated fire marshals and alternates within the organization and regularly practice fire or emergency drills with employees, including outdoor assembly points and head count procedures. These drills may also differ depending on the nature of the emergency (fire, natural disaster, gas leak etc.).
- Ensure that all fire exits and emergency equipment is well marked and that they are not blocked with boxes, equipment or debris
- Provide adequate automatic sprinkler coverage for your office space along with fire extinguishers and an alarm system. Be sure to have these safeguards tested and maintained on a regular basis.
- To ensure that they meet code requirements, all electrical distribution systems should be installed by a professional/certified electrician and maintained regularly
- Keep any flammable materials properly stored and secured at all times
- Maintain electrical cords and appliances to ensure that they remain in good repair. Immediately replace any items that show fraying or damage.
Here are few more general tips to help keep you healthy and safe at the office:
- Ensure that there are well-stocked first-aid kits available to treat potential staff injuries. First-aid / CPR training and a portable defibrillator are also good investments.
- Know the exceptional medical conditions or needs of those around you and be sure that others understand yours as well. A timely and proper response in an emergency situation can be critical.
- Office environments are notoriously dry. Be sure to keep yourself well hydrated throughout the day (ideally with fresh water) to avoid headaches, dry eyes, stiff joints and fatigue.
- If you’re tied to a desk for most of the day, be sure to take regular breaks in order to change your routine and get your body moving. Grab some coffee, walk to the printer, deliver a message in-person and get some fresh air at lunch. All of these things help to keep your mind more alert and your body from getting too stiff.
- Poor ventilation or airflow in the office can cause Sick Building Syndrome (SBS). The symptoms include irritation of eyes, nose and throat, headaches, fatigue, and a susceptibility to colds and flu. Ensure that your office space has adequate air quality measures in place to avoid these types of issues.
- Do yourself a favour and regularly clean your desk, keyboard, phone and any other items that you handle every day, with a disinfectant solution or wipes. Your desk for instance, is typically 400 times dirtier than the average toilet seat. Yuck! You may simply be recycling your own germs and allergens over and over.
As we continue to work increasingly longer hours, with much of them spent inside an office environment, knowing how to avoid these top office injuries and health risks is now much more of a necessity.