Workplace Safety Issues Arising From Office Automation
The concept of an office as a workplace fraught with danger may seem odd. However, modern offices have specific safety issues that should be addressed, many of which are due to office automation. OSHA guidelines can help you institute safety measures to combat office automation hazards.
Safety in the workplace is an issue that must be addressed by businesses of all types, including businesses that operate in an office setting. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers to comply with the general duty clause, which mandates that every employer maintain a safe workplace. Therefore, safety is an issue for traditionally dangerous work such as foundries, steel mills, and auto manufacturers, as well as the seemingly harmless office-type business.
You may have trouble imagining what exactly is so dangerous about an office workplace. If you think about it though, an office is full of potential hazards that both you and your employees need to be aware of and for which you need to take appropriate precautions.
For example, cloth and vinyl chairs, carpeting and drapery, and the large quantity of paper found in many offices can create a fire hazard. Misplaced waste baskets, poorly lighted halls, substances tracked in from outside that may cause people to slip, frayed carpet, a drawer left open, electrical cords on the floor, and office machines being used by those who do not know how to use them are other examples of office safety hazards.
However, with the dramatic increase in office automation, a primary source of injuries in the office may not be from movement — such as lifting heaving objects or running into things — but from a lack of movement. Office automation encourages people to sit in one place for long periods of time.
To combat and prevent injuries and illness related to office work, you need to have an understanding of the illnesses and injuries caused by office work.
Repetitive motion injuries, also known as cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs), are injuries that build slowly over time to the point of becoming a painful injury to an employee. They occur when an employee performs the same task in the same range of motion over a long period of time without taking proper precautions to make sure that no injury occurs.
The most common cumulative trauma disorder is known as carpal tunnel syndrome, and it is a painful injury that can debilitate the hands, wrists, and arms of an employee. Carpal tunnel syndrome stems primarily from the repetitive motions of typing and computer work. In carpal tunnel syndrome, the frequent bending of the wrist causes tendons or tissue to swell in the tunnel formed by the carpal bones and the ligament, pinching the median nerve that gives feeling to the hand. Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome include burning or painful tingling in a hand or shooting pains up an arm.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is not unique to computer operators. All types of workers who perform repetitive tasks are at risk for developing the condition — including garment workers, butchers, grocery checkers, electronics assembly workers, musicians, packers, housekeepers, cooks, and carpenters.
Other illnesses associated with office automation, and computer usage in particular, that are reported more often by computer users than by nonusers include:
- neck, shoulder, and lower back pains
- difficulty sleeping
- deteriorated vision
- eye strain
- eye irritation
- red eyes
- blurred vision
What can you do to combat these office-related illnesses and injuries? There are actually quite a few measures that are not difficult to implement that will at the very least minimize the risk of injuries and illnesses of this type.
Office Workplace-Related Injuries and Illnesses and How to Prevent Them
Once you are aware of the office automation-related injuries and illnesses that your employees face, your best bet for protecting yourself — and your employees — is to take preventative measures. Ergonomics, which is the study of the spatial design of job requirements and work sites in relation to human physical and psychological capabilities and limitations, can assist you with this task.
Two major ergonomic considerations are the physical interaction of your employees with equipment they use on the job and the range of motion that employees have in doing their jobs.
For example, if your employees work in front of a computer all day, ergonomic considerations would stress that their chairs are at the proper height to allow them to reach the keyboard while maintaining good posture.
Also, if your employees have to do a great deal of typing or other tasks that require that they maintain the same position or repeat the same physical motions for a long time, proper ergonomics would require that they receive ample opportunity to stretch and possibly vary their tasks to avoid physical injury from the repetitive motion.
Ergonomics are also used as a measure of how safe your office is for automated-type work. If you ignore ergonomic problems in your office workplace OSHA can charge you with a violation of the general duty clause. When a charge of ergonomic violation is made under the general duty clause, OSHA must show that:
- The hazard would have been recognized by you, by your industry, or through the exercise of common sense.
- You could have employed feasible corrective measures to prevent the hazardous condition.
- The violation is serious, in that the condition created by the hazard could cause death or serious injury to an employee (the likelihood of death or serious injury has no bearing).
Taking steps to combat these types of illnesses and injuries in your office will keep worker productivity up, reduce workers compensation claims and avoid action against you by OSHA.
Preventing Office-Related Injury
Repetitive motion and vision-related problems can be addressed through a variety of equipment and work process methods.
Repetitive motion problems. If your jobs require repetitive motion, you can take some steps to minimize the risk to employees who do those jobs, including making sure that:
- Work stations are ergonomically correct and have:
- adjustable components
- a foot rest
- a document holder
- a wrist rest
- Tools and work methods are designed properly.
- Employees understand the risks of repetitive motion.
- Productivity requirements are not resulting in inadequate rest breaks.
You can also consider rotating employees among different jobs to make sure that they don't have to perform the same motions all day long.
Vision problems. Employees who must stare at computer screens face special problems with their vision. Some ways to help minimize the risk of injury or illness include:
- providing adjustable furniture and equipment, particularly at shared work stations
- adjusting room lighting in the area and providing desk lamps for other work
- encouraging computer operators to have a thorough eye examination every year
- allowing breaks or time for tasks that don't require close concentration
- reducing glare on computer screens
- providing desk equipment so that reference materials can be placed close to the computer screen and at the same distance from the eyes
- educating employees on how prolonged staring at computer screens may affect their eyes
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