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Five Common Office Hazards to Prevent
 

By Roy Maurer  10/29/2013
 
 

You may think working in a comfy, climate-controlled office is safe and hazard-free, but there are many risks to your safety and health all around you. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports tens of thousands of injuries or work-related health problems that office workers suffer each year.

Slips and trips are the most common office accident, accounting for the greatest number of injuries, according to the National Safety Council (NSC). Other office hazards include sprains and strains, poor workstation ergonomics, indoor air-quality problems, insufficient or excessive lighting, noise, electrical hazards and random acts of violence.

Being aware of these dangers is the first step in eliminating them and reducing the odds of injuries occurring. HR can implement processes to identify dangers and correct problems, including instituting safety walkthroughs, setting up a formal reporting system for unsafe conditions and conducting training sessions on correcting safety hazards.

Here are five of the most common office hazards.

Slips, Trips and Falls  

Universal slip, trip and fall culprits include unattended spills, wet floors, exposed cords, unstable work surfaces, uneven floors, loose rugs and cluttered areas.

Inclement weather conditions, such as rain, snow and ice, create outdoor slip hazards on exterior steps, ramps, walkways, entry and exit areas, and parking lots, and indoor hazards when wet floors are not cleaned up promptly. Ice-melting products and nonslip runners can greatly reduce slip, trip and fall hazards during winter months.

Clean up all spills immediately, and post signs identifying hazards in areas that are being cleaned or that have recently been cleaned, and in areas prone to water accumulation and wet surfaces.

Office walkways should be kept clear, as boxes and other clutter can create a trip hazard.

Electrical and telephone cords should also be properly secured and not stretched across aisles or walkways, and carpets should not be frayed or buckled.

Ergonomic Injuries

Office workers spend many hours a day seated at a desk, working on a computer, resulting in ergonomic strains and other injuries related to posture and repetitive movement. These types of hazards can be difficult to detect.

A variety of adjustable chairs, desks, keyboards, etc., should be offered to accommodate the widest range of work styles. Employees should be told how to set up and operate adjustable equipment for the best workstation fit.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) offers an eTool illustrating general ergonomics guidelines for setting up a computer workstation and performing computer-related tasks:

  • Position the chair, keyboard and monitor in a straight line with your body.
  • Maintain a relaxed, neutral posture.
  • Sit up straight, adjusting the chair to provide firm back support.
  • Let your arms hang loosely at the shoulders.
  • Keep your elbows at a 90-degree angle while typing.
  • Use an adjustable keyboard tray to position your keyboard and mouse at a comfortable height (usually lower than the desk surface). Place your mouse next to the keyboard, and keep it as close as possible to your body, to avoid reaching.
  • Adjust the chair’s height so that your feet are firmly on the ground.

HR can monitor employees for musculoskeletal disorder symptoms. OSHA advises paying attention to any pain, fatigue, numbness or weakness, as these may be signs of an ergonomics problem and the start of a more serious issue.

Eye Strain

Spending a large portion of your workday at the computer can cause eyestrain, according to the Mayo Clinic. Eyes may become dry and irritated, and workers may begin having trouble focusing. Light levels should be suitable for the work task—for instance, manual detail work may require higher levels of lighting, but staring at a computer monitor does not, the NSC said.

You can cut down on excessive glare by closing blinds on windows and dimming the overhead lights. Correctly positioning monitors slightly below eye level, minimizing screen glare and increasing computer font size all can help alleviate eyestrain.

To reduce eyestrain and fatigue, OSHA recommends taking a 10-minute break for every hour you spend looking at a computer screen, giving your eyes a rest and focusing on things at varying distances.

Fire Safety

Fire departments responded to approximately 17,500 office fires in 2012, which resulted in $643 million in property damage, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Routine office inspections could reduce this danger. 

According to the NSC:

  • Power cords should be inspected regularly for wear and be replaced if they are frayed or have exposed wire.
  • Cords should never be used if the third prong has been damaged or removed.
  • Cords should never overload outlets. The most common causes of fires started by extension cords are improper use and overloading. Extension cords should be approved by a certifying laboratory, such as Underwriters Laboratories, and be used only temporarily to connect one device at a time.

If employees use space heaters, verify that the appliances are approved for commercial use and have a switch that automatically shuts them off if they tip over. Space heaters should not be placed near combustible materials like paper. 

Objects should never be placed closer than 18 inches below fire-sprinkler heads, to allow a full range of coverage. Emergency-exit routes should never be blocked or locked.

It’s also critical that employees be trained on what to do if a fire erupts. Are your workers trained in the basic use of fire extinguishers?

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Act, when an employer has provided portable fire extinguishers for employee use, the employer must also train workers on the general principles of fire extinguisher use. Employers have the option of requiring all employees to immediately evacuate the premises.

Indoor Air Quality

The prevalence of poor indoor air quality has contributed to a rise in occupational asthma and other respiratory disorders, chemical sensitivity and allergies, according to the NSC. Some of the reasons for poor air quality are inadequate ventilation systems; office overcrowding; the presence of cleaning chemicals and pesticides; water damage and mold growth; cubicle design that blocks off air flow to work areas; too much or too little humidity; and poor housekeeping, which leads to dirty work environments.

The office’s air quality can be greatly improved by proper maintenance, cleaning and filtration of the ventilation, heating and air conditioning system. This will help reduce respiratory irritants, infections and illnesses, the NSC said.

Preventing the accumulation of dust, pollen, dirt and other buildup on all surfaces, especially in carpeting, will also cut down on respiratory irritants, infections and illnesses.

Cleanliness and orderliness, too, may prevent the spread of illnesses and diseases in the workplace. Restrooms, break rooms, lunch areas and refrigerators should be regularly sanitized, and workers should be told to throw out food before it spoils.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him on Twitter @SHRMRoy.

Related Articles:

Is Your Workplace Air Making Employees Sick?, SHRM Online Safety & Security, May 2013

Cleaning-Chemical Safety Program Tips, SHRM Online Safety & Security, May 2013

Training Is Critical in Preventing Workplace Fire Casualties, SHRM Online Safety & Security, October 2012

Identify, Treat and Prevent MSDs, SHRM Online Safety & Security, August 2011

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