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Offices: A Hazard Summary

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Office workers may perform a wide variety of tasks, including: answering the telephone; interacting with the public; handling money; receiving and delivering mail; opening mail; typing and transcribing; operating office machinery (e.g., computers, adding machines, duplicating machines and so on); filing; lifting supplies, parcels and so on; and professional work such as writing, editing, accounting, research, interviewing and the like. Table 1 lists standard clerical jobs.


Table 1. Standard clerical jobs

Clerks

Secretaries and keyboard-operating clerks

Stenographers and typists
Word-processor and related operators
Data entry operators
Calculating-machine operators
Secretaries

Numerical clerks

Accounting and bookkeeping clerks
Statistical and finance clerks

Material-recording and transport clerks

Stock clerks
Production clerks
Transport clerks

Library, mail and related clerks

Library and filing clerks
Mail carriers and sorting clerks
Coding, proof-reading and related clerks
Scribes and related clerks
Other office clerks

Cashiers, tellers and related clerks

Cashiers and ticket clerks
Tellers and other counter clerks
Bookmakers and croupiers
Pawnbrokers and money-lenders
Debt-collectors and related workers

Client information clerks

Travel agency and related clerks
Receptionists and information clerks
Telephone and switchboard operators

Source: ILO 1990a.


Office workers are often thought to have pleasant, safe environments to work in. Even though office work is not as hazardous as many other workplaces, there are a variety of safety and health problems that may be present in an office. Some of these can pose significant risks to office workers.

Some Hazards and Health Problems

Slips, trips and falls are a common cause of office injuries. Poor weather conditions such as rain, snow and ice create slip hazards outside of buildings, and inside when wet floors are not cleaned up promptly. Electrical and telephone cords placed in aisles and walkways are a common cause of trips. Carpeted offices can create trip hazards when old, frayed and buckling carpet is not repaired and shoe heels catch on it. Electrical floor outlet boxes can cause trips when they are located in aisles and walkways.

Cuts and bruises are seen in office settings from a variety of causes. Paper cuts are common from file folders, envelopes and paper edges. Workers can be injured from walking into tables, doors or drawers that have been left open and are unseen. Office supplies and materials that are improperly stored can cause injury if they fall onto a worker or are placed where a worker would inadvertently walk into them. Cuts can also be caused by office equipment such as paper cutters and sharp edges of drawers, cabinets and tables.

Electrical hazards occur when electrical cords are placed across aisles and walkways, subjecting the cords to damage. Improper use of extension cords is often seen in offices, for example, when these cords are used in place of fixed (permanently installed) outlets, have too many items plugged into them (so that there could be an electrical overload) or are the wrong size (thin extension cords used to energize heavy-duty cords). Adapter or “cheater” plugs are used in many offices. Most often they are used to connect equipment that must be grounded (three-pronged plug) into two-pronged outlets without connecting the plug to ground. This creates an unsafe electrical connection. Ground pins are sometimes broken off a plug to allow for the same two-prong connection.

Stress is a significant psychosocial health problem for many offices. Stress is caused by many factors, including noise from overcrowding and equipment, poor relationships with supervisors and/or co-workers, increase in workload and lack of control of work.

Musculoskeletal problems and soft tissue injuries such as tendinitis result from office furniture and equipment which is not fitted to a worker’s individual physical needs. Tendinitis can occur from repeated movement of certain body parts, such as finger problems from constant writing, or filing and retrieving files from cabinets that are too full. Many office workers suffer from a variety of RSIs such as carpal tunnel syndrome, thoracic outlet syndrome and ulcer nerve damage because of the ill-fitting equipment and the lack of rest breaks from continuous keying (on a computer) or other repetitive activities. Poorly designed furniture and equipment also contribute to poor posture and nerve compression of lower extremities, since many office workers sit for long periods of time; all of these factors contribute to low-back and lower-extremity problems, as does constant standing.

Continual use of computers and poor overall lighting create eye strain for office workers. Because of this, many workers experience a worsening of vision, headaches, burning eyes and eye fatigue. Adjustments in lighting and computer screen contrast, as well as frequent breaks in eye focus, are necessary to help eliminate eye problems. Lighting must be appropriate for the task.

Fire and emergency procedures are essential in an office. Many offices lack adequate procedures for workers to exit a building in case of fire or other emergency. These procedures, or emergency plans, should be in writing and should be practised (through fire drills) so that office occupants are familiar with where to go and what to do. This insures that all workers will promptly and safely evacuate in the event of a real fire or other emergency. Fire safety is often compromised in offices by blocking of exits, lack of exit signage, storage of incompatible chemicals or combustible materials, inoperative alarm or firefighting systems or total lack of adequate means of notification of workers in emergencies.

Violence

Violence in the workplace is now being recognized as a significant workplace hazard. As discussed in the chapter Violence, in the United States, for example, homicide is the leading cause of death for women workers and the third-leading cause of death for all workers. Non-fatal assaults occur much more frequently than most people realize. Office workers who interact with the public—for example, cashiers—can be at greater risk of violence. Violence can also be internal (worker against worker). The vast majority of office workplace violence, however, comes from people coming to the office from the outside. Government office workers are much more at risk for workplace violence incidents because these workers administer laws and regulations to which many citizens have hostile reactions, be they verbal or physical. In the United States, 18% of the workforce are government workers, but they constitute 30% of the victims of workplace violence.

Offices can be made safer by restricting access to work areas, changing or creating policies and procedures which help eliminate sources of hostility and provide for emergency procedures and installing security equipment which is appropriate for the particular office being improved. Measures for improving safety are illustrated in the article describing German requirements for bank teller safety.

Indoor Air Quality

Poor indoor air quality (IAQ) is probably the most frequent safety and health complaint from office workers. The effect of poor IAQ on productivity, absenteeism and morale is substantial. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has listed poor IAQ in their top 5 public health problems of the 1990s. Many reasons exist for poor air quality. Among them are closed or sealed buildings with inadequate amounts of outside air, overcrowding of offices, inadequate maintenance of ventilation systems, presence of chemicals such as pesticides and cleaning compounds, water damage and mould growth, installation of cubicles and walls which block off air flow to work areas, too much or too little humidity and dirty work environments (or poor housekeeping).

Table 2  lists common indoor air pollutants found in many offices. Office machines are also a source of many indoor air pollutants. Unfortunately, most offices have not designed their ventilation systems to take into account emissions from office equipment.

Table 2. Indoor air pollutants that may be found in office buildings

Pollutant

Sources

Health effects

Ammonia

Blueprint machines, cleaning solutions

Respiratory system, eye and skin irritation

Asbestos

Insulation products, spackling compounds, fire retardants, ceiling and floor tiles

Pulmonary (lung) fibrosis, cancer

Carbon dioxide

Humans’ exhaled air, combustion

Headache, nausea, dizziness

Carbon monoxide

Automobile exhaust, tobacco smoke, combustion

Headache, weakness, dizziness, nausea; long-term exposure related to heart disease

Formaldehyde

Urea-formaldehyde foam insulation and urea-formaldehyde resin used to bind laminated wood products such as particleboard and plywood; tobacco smoke

Respiratory system, eye and skin irritation, nausea, headache, fatigue, possibility of cancer

Freons

Leaking air conditioning systems

Respiratory system irritation; heart arrhythmia at high concentrations

Methyl alcohol

Spirit duplicating machines

Respiratory system and skin irritation

Micro-organisms (viruses, bacteria, fungi)

Humidifying and air conditioning systems, evaporative condensers, cooling towers, mildewed papers, old books, damp newsprint

Respiratory infections, allergic responses

Motor vehicle exhaust (carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, lead particulates, sulphur oxides)

Parking garages, outside traffic

Respiratory system and eye irritation, headache (see carbon monoxide), genetic damage

Nitrogen oxides

Gas heaters and stoves, combustion, motor vehicle exhaust, tobacco smoke

Respiratory system and eye irritation

Ozone

Photocopying and other electrical machines

Respiratory system and eye irritation, headache, genetic damage

Paint vapours and dusts (organics, lead, mercury)

Freshly painted surfaces, old, cracking paint

Respiratory system and eye irritation; neurological, kidney and bone-marrow damage at high levels of exposure

PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), dioxin, dibenzofuran

Electrical transformers, old fluorescent light ballasts

Sperm and foetal defects, skin rashes, liver and kidney damage, cancer

Pesticides

Spraying of plants and premises

Depending on chemical components: liver damage, cancer, neurological damage, skin, respiratory system and eye irritation

Radon and decay products

Building construction materials such as concrete and stone; basements

Genetic damage, cancer, foetal and sperm damage, etc., due to ionizing radiation

Solvents (methylene chloride, 1,1,1-trichloro-ethane, perchloroethylene, hexane, heptane, ethyl alcohol, glycol ethers, xylene, etc.)

Typewriter cleaners and correction fluids, spray adhesives, rubber cement, stamp pad inks, felt-tip markers, printing press inks and cleaners

Depending upon solvent: skin, eye and respiratory system irritation; headaches, dizziness, nausea; liver and kidney damage

Sterilant gases (such as ethylene oxide)

Systems to sterilize humidifying and air-conditioning systems

Depending on chemical components: respiratory system and eye irritation, genetic damage, cancer

Tobacco smoke (passive exposure to particulates, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, coal tars and nicotine)

Cigarettes, pipes, cigars

Respiratory system and eye irritation; may lead to diseases associated with smokers

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)

Photocopiers and other office machines, carpets, new plastics

Respiratory system and eye irritation, allergic reactions

Source: Stellman and Henifin 1983.

The prevalence of poor IAQ has contributed to a rise in occupational asthma and other respiratory disorders, chemical sensitivity and allergies. Dry or irritated skin and eyes are also common health complaints that can be linked to poor IAQ. Action must be taken to investigate and correct problems that are causing poor IAQ according to air quality standards and recommendations.

Dermatitis (both allergic and irritant) can be caused by many of the air pollutants listed in table 2—for example, solvents, pesticide residues, inks, coated papers, typewriter ribbons, cleaners and so forth can cause skin problems. The best solutions for office workers are identification of the cause and substitution.

 

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Contents

Preface
Part I. The Body
Part II. Health Care
Part III. Management & Policy
Part IV. Tools and Approaches
Part V. Psychosocial and Organizational Factors
Part VI. General Hazards
Part VII. The Environment
Part VIII. Accidents and Safety Management
Part IX. Chemicals
Part X. Industries Based on Biological Resources
Part XI. Industries Based on Natural Resources
Part XII. Chemical Industries
Part XIII. Manufacturing Industries
Part XIV. Textile and Apparel Industries
Part XV. Transport Industries
Part XVI. Construction
Part XVII. Services and Trade
Education and Training Services
Emergency and Security Services
Entertainment and the Arts
Health Care Facilities and Services
Hotels and Restaurants
Office and Retail Trades
Personal and Community Services
Public and Government Services
Transport Industry and Warehousing
Part XVIII. Guides

Office and Retail Trades References

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