Safety in an Office Environment
Warning! Hazardous Area! Construction site or manufacturing plant, right? How about an office? In addition to traditional office exposures, changes in office technology in the last 25 years have introduced an array of employee injury and illness sources. In most cases, the types of injuries are the same, but contributing factors have increased and are more varied. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) about 76,000 office workers nationwide receive disabling injuries every year.
The most frequent types of incidents are falls, either from heights, such as chairs, stairs, or ladders; tripping; or slippery surfaces. Strains from overexertion, striking or struck by objects, being caught in or between objects, and falling objects are all common sources of injury in an office setting. However, many injuries are also the result of contact with electrical equipment or appliances.
The most common type of injury is also one of the most preventable. In many cases falls are the result of an unsafe act, such as standing on a rolling chair to reach a high shelf. However, in most cases where an unsafe condition is present, like a wet floor, injury could have been prevented with a little extra care. Here are some simple tips offered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Office of Health and Safety, for preventing falls:
- Be sure the pathway is clear before you walk.
- Close drawers completely after every use.
- Avoid excessive bending, twisting, and leaning backward while seated.
- Secure electrical cords and wires away from walkways.
- Always use a stepladder for overhead reaching. Never use chairs as ladders, especially rolling swivel chairs.
- Clean up spills immediately.
- Pick up objects co-workers may have left on the floor.
- Report loose carpeting or damaged flooring.
- Never carry anything that obscures your vision.
- Wear stable shoes with non-slip soles.1
If you start to fall, it is best to scrunch and roll, rather than reaching out. This way your body is better able to absorb the impact of the fall instead of possibly being injured by trying to stop the fall.
The majority of back injuries and other musculoskeletal disorders are the result of lifting, often done improperly. In general, most lifting in an office environment does not involve heavy objects, but if not done correctly, can cause severe stress on the back. Practicing good lifting technique significantly lowers the stress placed on the back and reduces the potential for injury. Things to consider when approaching a lift are:
- The weight of the object.
- The shape, firmness, and stability of the object (ability to maintain a good grip).
- The height of the lift.
- The distance the object is to be carried.
Train employees to ask for help from a co-worker or use a lifting aid, such as a cart or hand truck if they feel they cannot safely lift an object. Avoid awkward positions, reaching, and twisting while lifting. If seated, squat and stand to lift objects. Incredible amounts of strain are placed on the back when lifting or bending from a seated position, even when working with small objects. In addition, it is important to remember the same good lifting techniques used for picking up an object should also be practiced when putting an object down.
Striking or Struck by Objects
Office layout, inattention, and poor housekeeping are the biggest contributors to striking or being struck by objects. Bumping into people and things causes a significant number of office injuries. Office furniture, file cabinets, and equipment are some of the objects that people hit as they travel through an office. It is important to pay attention when walking and not carry objects that obstruct one’s view. Do not read paperwork while walking. File drawers should be closed when not in use, and aisles and walkways kept clear of obstructions. Cabinets and desks should be arranged so that drawers do not open into walkways. Remember, conditions change and the pathway that was clear a few minutes ago might not be clear now.
Improper storage and material handling are often related to incidents in which office workers are struck by an object. Objects falling off shelves, cabinets, and desks can result in bodily injuries, especially to the head. Serious injuries can occur if file cabinets are unbalanced (top-heavy) and not secured to a stationary object such as a wall. If a heavy drawer or multiple drawers are open at the same time, the cabinet can fall over, possibly on an employee. For the same reason, do not use the tops of file cabinets for storage. These items could also fall onto an employee. In storage areas, place heavier items on bottom shelves to increase stability and stack boxes so that they will not fall over.
Desk equipment can fall on feet, so keep equipment away from the edge of work surfaces. If not handled properly, objects being carried can fall onto a foot. Also, be alert when approaching a closed door. It suddenly may open in your direction.
Being Caught In or Between Objects
Inattention is also a major source of caught in or between objects injuries. The offending object is usually something simple like a door, or desk drawer. Additionally, office machines often have moving parts and “nip” points. It is critical to “Watch your fingers!” and secure loose items, such as hair, clothing, and jewelry. Office equipment should have proper covers or guarding in place and must not be operated if the guards have been removed. Also, paper cutter blades should be locked in the down position after use.
In the modern office, almost everything operates on electricity. Office equipment can become extremely hazardous if it is faulty, not installed properly, or inadequately maintained. Just as electricity flows through wires and other conductors, it can travel through the human body if contacted. Water provides very little resistance to electrical flow and the body is about seventy percent water. If a person contacts an electrical circuit, a shock will probably occur. Shocks can range from a slight tingle to fatal. Even a low-level amount of electricity traveling through the chest can kill. Most office equipment carries enough power to cause electrocution (death). Several factors affect the seriousness of a shock, such as voltage and time in contact with the circuit. Some guidelines to safely operate electrical equipment include:
- Use only equipment that is properly grounded or double-insulated.
- Do not overload outlets.
- Do not plug multi-outlet bars to other multi-outlet bars.
- Only use equipment that has been approved by a national testing laboratory, such as Underwriters Laboratory (UL).
- Minimize the use of extension cords. Do not plug two extension cords together.
- Do not cover power cords or extension cords with rugs or mats.
- Do not run electrical cords through pedestrian aisles.
- Unplug or disconnect machines before servicing or repairing. Larger, non-portable units should be locked and tagged (lockout/tagout).
- Do not ignore the warning signs. If an item feels hot, makes an unusual noise (buzz or hum), smokes or sparks, take it out of service immediately and tag it “Do Not Use.”
- Inspect cords and equipment regularly, and report any defects immediately.
- Cover or guard any exposed electrical components or wires.
- Unplug cords from the outlet by gripping the plug. Do not pull the cord.
- Do not use electrical equipment or appliances near water or wet surfaces.
- Never use electrical equipment when hands or the equipment are wet.
These are just some of the hazards in an office environment, but all have a common theme: Proper layout and design, good housekeeping, as well as good care and maintenance of furniture and equipment are vital for providing a safe office workplace. As with all workplaces, protecting employees by eliminating or controlling hazards through engineering or work practice controls should be everyone’s goal, employer and employee alike.
1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Office of Health and Safety, “Office Safety” (2000), Viewed December 27, 2004, at http://www.cdc.gov
References U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Office of Health and Safety. “Office Safety.”- Viewed December 27, 2004, at http://www.cdc.gov
U.S. Department of Labor, OSHA Office of Training and Education. “Office Safety and Health Checklist.” Viewed December 27, 2004, at http://www.labtrain.noaa.gov/osha600/refer/menu15d.pdf
U.S Environmental Protection Agency, OSHA 600 Collateral Duty Safety and Health Course, “Office Safety Module.” Viewed December 27, 2004, at http://www.labtrain.noaa.gov/osha600/mod27/2701—-.htm
North Carolina State University, Environmental Health and Public Safety Center, “Safety Meeting Presentations – Office Safety.” Viewed December 27, 2004, at http://www.ncsu.edu
Ohio State University, The Office of Environmental Health and Safety. “A Quick Guide to Office Safety.” Viewed December 27, 2004, at http://www.ehs.ohio-state.edu
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