Health hazards in the office and how to best avoid them
Is your office hazardous to your health? Open floor plans, the communal coffee pot and even your work chair can all wreak havoc with your mental and physical health. Top experts and the latest research give you 12 reasons to be extra careful!
Lifting, slipping, tripping and falling at work make the office a dangerous place if you’re prone to clumsiness. Muscle sprains, strains and tears accounted for 38 percent of injuries requiring time off from work in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Back injuries from “lifting and lowering” were the most common, at 22 percent, followed by injuries from falls. “Stressed-out, overworked and overtired employees make workplace accidents and injuries more likely,” says Kevin Meyer, senior consultant at Hogan Assessments in Tulsa, Ohlahoma, U.S., a firm that specializes in employee productivity.
Experts recommend finding ways to relieve stress - meditation and exercise, and lifting with your legs — not your back — to reduce the risk of injuries.
Team-building trends in corporate environments gave rise to open office plans, where employees share a common space. Problem is, all that camaraderie can backfire. High noise levels and a lack of privacy increases stress and reduces satisfaction with the work environment, according to several studies, including one published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. The study subjected 40 clerical workers to three hours of low-intensity noise that simulated typical office sounds. A control group experienced silence. Both groups were then given unsolvable (unbeknownst to them) math problems. Those who were subjected to the low-level noise gave up after only a few attempts, while workers from the quiet environment plugged on.
Experts recommend employees who are bothered by noise wear headphones or ear buds.
Energy-efficient workplaces protect the environment and save energy costs, but they may also make breathing more difficult for people with asthma, says Dr. Nathan Rabinovitch, an asthma specialist at National Jewish Health in Denver. “We’ve become so efficient at sealing off areas where air would come in (which saves energy) through the roof and windows that everything gets trapped inside, which makes people sick.” The pollution kicked up from carpeting has nowhere to go, and it settles into the lungs, Rabinovitch says.
If you suffer from frequent coughing, wheezing or shortness of breath, ask your doctor about medications such as inhaled corticosteroids.
Sharing an office with co-workers puts you at risk for exchanging germs, but it’s more likely if your cube mate is male, according to a study conducted by microbiologists and scientists at San Diego State University and the University of Arizona. Researchers found 10 percent to 20 percent more bacteria in men’s offices than in women’s. “Men are at a greater risk for catching bugs like the norovirus as they often don't pay as strict attention to hand hygiene as women do after using the restroom,” says Michael Schmidt, a microbiologist at the Medical University of South Carolina who was not involved with the study. In addition, a man’s larger body size also gives him more bacteria to spread.
Wash your hand frequently and clean your work areas with a bleach solution to keep bacteria in check.
The office coffee pot is second only to day-care centers as the most likely place to find norovirus, Schmidt says. Norovirus is highly contagious and can be passed along simply by touching an infected person or through contaminated food or water. The virus causes stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhea, along with fever and body aches. “Aggressive attention to proper hand hygiene with soap and water and/or alcohol hand gel is a must to prevent you from ‘eating’ a dose,” Schmidt says.
“Anyone who’s been sick should not prepare coffee, lunch or cut cake until three days after their symptoms are gone. And use bleach on all common areas.”
Using a fitness ball instead of a traditional office chair to increase core strength and reduce back pain may do the exact opposite. “Studies actually show that the effects of sitting on a ball on core muscle activity are actually minimal, and most people find it rather uncomfortable,” says Brad Schoenfeld, author of “Sculpting Her Body Perfect” (Human Kinetics). In addition, prolonged sitting on a ball may increase spinal compression and shrinkage, he says.
Instead of risking spinal problems -- and injuries due to falling off the ball -- Schoenfeld recommends finding a good-quality office chair. “Sit upright in the chair and make sure to maintain proper posture.”
Keeping your work area well-lit with energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs may cause skin damage if you’re within five feet (1.5 meters) of them, according to researchers from Stony Brook University in New York, U.S. The scientists found significant ultraviolet emissions from the bulbs, which appeared to originate from cracks in the phosphor coatings and were present in all bulbs studied. The twisting configuration of the bulbs, combined with the smaller diameter of the glass, creates more spaces where the protective coating wears away, allowing the release of the dangerous light, the study showed.
Researchers recommend keeping the lights at a safe distance and behind a glass enclosure.
If you sneeze and wheeze your way through work but feel fine when you leave the office, you may be allergic to work — literally. Occupational asthma accounts for 10 percent of all asthma cases in the U.S. and involve symptoms that arise only at work. “The symptoms are often better or even go away when patients are off from work for a few days or a week of vacation,” says Dr. Kevin P. McGrath, an allergist and spokesman for the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
Causes vary from animal proteins to chemicals in spray paints, adhesives, latex gloves and respiratory irritants such as chlorine and other gases. If you suspect you may be allergic, make an appointment with an allergist who can evaluate you to determine causes and possible treatment.
Staring at a computer screen for hours on end can lead to dry eye, headaches, eyestrain, blurred vision and other symptoms of Computer Vision Syndrome. “The problem is especially troublesome in populations at risk, including those using certain drugs (e.g. some anti-depressants and anti-hypertensives), those with autoimmune diseases, post-menopausal women and people who work in arid or polluted environments,” says Dr. Roy Chuck, chairman of the department of ophthalmology and visual sciences at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.
Practices that may help: use artificial tears, view desktop screens at eye level or below to increase lid coverage of the cornea and sit away from air vents. Use humidifiers and take frequent breaks. See an ophthalmologist if the problem persists.
Bullying isn’t just a childhood problem. One of four workers feels bullied, according to a recent CareerBuilder study. While the definition of bullying varies, it typically refers to aggressive behavior, associated with work, primarily intended to cause physical or psychological harm to others, says Rick Brenner, management consultant and principal of Chaco Canyon Consulting in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.
Examples of bullying include being accused of mistakes you didn’t make, others taking credit for your work and being yelled at in front of co-workers. Targets often suffer from sleep and digestive problems, depression and other forms of stress. If you’re the target of a bully, your options vary depending on the situation, Brenner says. “Get help. Hire a bullying coach or psychotherapist. The sooner the better.”
If your desk sits in front of the office candy dish, you may find your waistline expanding. A study published in the International Journal of Obesity and led by Brian Wansink, director of Cornell University’s Food Brand Lab, found people ate an average of 225 calories more each day when the candy dish was within arm’s reach and 100 calories more with the dish six feet (1.8 meters) away. That amounts to an additional 17 or seven pounds (7.7 or 3.2 kilograms) per year, respectively. In addition, people who ate the candy underestimated the number of pieces they ate.
Experts recommend keeping the candy dish at least six feet (1.8 meters) away from you, or in a drawer or file cabinet not easily within reach, to avoid mindless eating and excess poundage.
Working in an overheated office slows productivity and increases the risk of accidents, according to a study by the Health Protection Agency in the U.K. In addition, warm air in meeting rooms, combined with high levels of carbon dioxide -- largely from workers’ respiration -- during long presentations, can cause sleepiness and a drop in decision-making ability, according to a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives.
The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers recommends the following temperature range for office work: between 68.5 and 76 degrees Fahrenheit (20.3 and 24.4 degrees Celsius) in winter and 74 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit (23.3 and 26.7 degrees Celsius) in summer. A Cornell University study found 77 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius) the optimal temperature.