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Beating the office hazard blues.

NEARLY HALF the U.S. labor force--upwards of 50,000,000 people--works in office buildings. The office game is almost all mental, but the physical toll can be great. Emotional stress, so often the precursor to physical ailments, can grow in an office like mangroves in a swamp.

One's emotional circumstances, feelings of job satisfaction or security, and self-esteem can create considerable stress. In an office, there also are supervisors and co-workers to deal with. Maintaining a psychologically healthy atmosphere can be difficult.

Considering that most office employees spend nearly one-third of their lives at work, it makes sense that they experience so many debilitating injuries and disorders, stress-related or not. Modern buildings and high-tech office equipment have been applauded widely for their functional design, but their full impact on their tenants' or users' health has yet to be determined fully.

While certainly less dangerous than most agricultural, construction, manufacturing, or mining work, office jobs can wreak havoc. There appear to be, according to occupational health experts, four primary sources of the most frequent physical problems in offices--air, chairs, lights, and computers.

Air quality is a growing area of concern because of the steadily increasing number of sealed structures. The so-called "tight building syndrome" (some call it the "stuffy building syndrome") has been used to describe a range of complaints that encompass eye, nose, throat, and skin irritation, headache, fatigue, dizziness, difficulty in concentration, and shortness of breath. In one study of office worker health, air quality was found to be correlated strongly not only to satisfaction with the office environment, but also to symptoms of upper respiratory tract distress.

Although it often is difficult to establish direct cause-and-effect relationships between office conditions and such illnesses, some serious ailments, such as Legionnaires disease, can be linked to microorganisms borne in air conditioning or ventilation systems. Similarly, chemicals in carpets, drapes, and copying machines; tobacco smoke; and building materials all may induce physical reactions or illnesses.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), energy conservation measures in buildings, together with the use of new products and materials and inattention to ventilation maintenance, often are at the root of tight/stuffy building problems. In half the cases studied by NIOSH over eight years, inadequate ventilation was considered responsible.

Chairs. Whether at a work station or a simple desk, the chair used can be of critical importance to health and happiness. The most common complaint of back and neck aches is related directly to the design and condition of the chair.

Besides musculoskeletal injuries resulting from remaining in a stationary position for too long, most problems can be traced to poor lumbar (low back) support. Stools that are backless or chairs where the seat and back support are too widely separated always should be avoided since they give no lumbar support.

Similarly, backless kneeling chairs, sort of the waterbeds of office furniture, aren't as good as their hype. Some people may find they help, but there is no real evidence of their worth. Indeed, with a structure that eliminates any back rest for lumbar support and forces the knees to bear the entire body's weight, for which they are not designed, there is substantial evidence that the kneeling chairs are more a danger than a decent alternative.

So, besides a firm, yet responsive, backrest, what should you look for in a good chair? One adjustable enough to truly fit your body, giving your legs good circulation (feet should be able to rest flat on the floor with knees bent 90 degrees), seat and back contoured to the curves of the thighs and back, and adjustable armrests that can be used to take some of the load off when you type is best. A swiveling and tilting model can be convenient as well as fatigue-fighting, especially when working in several positions.

Poor lighting may lead to headaches or fatigue. One of the more common lighting problems--a desktop in shadow--easily can be taken care of with a desk lamp. Even in fluorescently lighted offices where workers can not control the overhead lighting in their own area, adding desk lamps in combination with reducing fluorescent lighting by unscrewing a bulb or two may be a soothing help.

Few people can tolerate fluorescent light that is not in a certain intensity range. The recommended range is 100-150 fc (footcandles).

Eyestrain from dim lighting or harsh shadows should be correctable in most cases. Many of the vision problems office workers have today, however, are related to the computer age.


With more than 70,000,000 computers expected to be in use this year, the machines and their video display terminals (VDTs) have become almost as common in American offices as telephones.

One of the major problems is eyestrain. It is not that VDTs emit rays that are harmful to the eyes; rather, staring at small letters and numerals on a screen for hours on end can create visual fatigue. So, too, can the glare of an overbright or badly placed light that reflects off a VDT screen.

For some people, operating a computer might mean they have to get glasses for the first time. Others who wear glasses already might need a new prescription. An eye examination is a must for any regular computer operator.

A number of eye specialists recommend following the 20-20 rule: keep your face at least 20 inches from the screen and pause every 20 minutes to look around the room. In addition, exercising the eyes can help reduce eyestrain.

The next most prevalent computer-related problem is pain in the neck, back, shoulders, arms, wrists, and legs. Basically, the trouble is that, while focusing on their work on the screen, people apparently forget how long they are sitting in one position. Their thighs and buttocks may suffer only minor continental shifts of the outer plates, but elsewhere in their bodily world, some muscles may knot and connective tissue may strain.

The key to thwarting this type of office nemesis is movement. Take regular full-body stretches away from the computer work station or desk (if you don't move away and suddenly are motivated to begin work again, you might do so in an awkward position); at times, you might want to take a break without getting up. Sitting correctly and performing some simple stretching and pumping exercises can be a quick revitalizer.

Moving the screen or keyboard, the desk or chair, can have similar salutary effects. The idea is that shifting the body, or changing its relation to the screen and keyboards, will help prevent it from getting all tangled up in one spot. More important, this can aid in achieving the proper posture for comfortable long-term use.

The serious concern about VDTs--that they might cause an increase in the risk of miscarriage--has yet to be researched adequately. Studies have indicated a possible association, but, to date, there is no firm evidence that the terminals are hazardous to pregnant women.

One issue that fairly well has been put to rest is the radiation emission question. VDTs do emit ionizing radiation, but at such a low level--less than one millirem per month--that the danger is negligible.

Health factors in the office--air, chairs, lights, and computers--largely can be controlled. If there is something in your work environment that is threatening your health, do not hesitate to speak to a supervisor about it. Aside from doing yourself a good turn, you will be doing your organization, and perhaps your colleagues, a favor as well.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Society for the Advancement of Education
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Goldstein, Robert L.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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