Office Safety: 10 steps to a safer office

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A job where most of the work tasks are completed while sitting in a chair in a climate-controlled office building would seem less fraught with danger. However, a surprising number of hazards can be present in an office setting.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 80,410 private-industry office and administrative workers suffered on-the-job injuries in 2008. Many of these injuries could have been prevented had workers or supervisors recognized the risks and implemented simple workplace modifications to help mitigate them.

Here are 25 steps you can take to reduce the risk of injury among your office staff.

Falls

Slips, trips and falls, the most common type of office injury, sidelined 25,790 workers in 2008, according to BLS. The National Safety Council says employees are 2.5 times more likely to suffer a disabling fall in an office setting than anywhere else. Several hazards contribute to these injuries, although most can be significantly reduced, often by raising awareness among employees.

1- Stay clutter-free
Boxes, files and various items piled in walkways can create a tripping hazard, according to OSHA. Be certain that all materials are safely stored in their proper location to prevent buildup of clutter in walkways. Further, in addition to posing an electrical hazard, stretching cords across walkways or under rugs creates a tripping hazard, so ensure all cords are properly secured and covered.

2- Step on up
Standing on chairs – particularly rolling office chairs – is a significant fall hazard. Workers who need to reach something at an elevated height should use a stepladder. The Chicago-based American Ladder Institute cautions that stepladders must be fully opened and placed on level, firm ground. Workers should never climb higher than the step indicated as the highest safe standing level.

3- Maintain a clear line of vision
Workers can collide when making turns in the hallways and around blind corners or cubicle walls. The National Safety Council suggests installing convex mirrors at intersections to help reduce collisions. If workers can see who is coming around the corner, collisions are less likely to occur.

4- Get a grip
Carpeting and other skid-resistant surfaces can serve to reduce falls. Marble or tile can become very slippery – particularly when wet, according to the National Safety Council. Placing carpets down can be especially helpful at entranceways, where workers are likely to be coming in with shoes wet from rain or snow.

Struck/caught by

Another major type of injury in the office setting comes from workers being struck by or caught by an object. Incidents of this nature accounted for 15,680 injuries in 2008, according to BLS.

5- Shut the drawer
File cabinets with too many fully extended drawers could tip over if they are not secured, the council warns. Additionally, open drawers on desks and file cabinets pose a tripping hazard, so be sure to always completely close drawers when not in use.

6- Safe stacking
According to the Office of Compliance, which oversees the safety of U.S. congressional workers, proper storage of heavy items can help reduce the number of office injuries. Large stacks of materials and heavy equipment can cause major injuries if they are knocked over. OOC recommends storing heavy objects close to the floor, and warns that the load capacity of shelves or storage units should never be exceeded.

 

Ergonomics injuries

Perhaps the most prevalent injuries in an office setting are related to ergonomics. Because office workers spend the bulk of their day seated at a desk and working on a computer, they are prone to strains and other injuries related to posture and repetitive movement. Ergonomics hazards can be difficult to detect. “Most office conditions that can be described as hazardous from an ergonomics perspective would appear quite innocuous to the everyday observer,” said Marc Turina, principal consultant for ErgoSmart Consultants in McKees Rocks, PA.

7- Provide adjustable equipment
One size does not fit all in an office workstation. “Adjustability is the key,” Turina said. “Chairs, work surfaces, monitor stands, etc., should all be adjustable in order to accommodate the widest range of employees.” He recommended presenting a variety of options to employees. Although employers may be reluctant to pay for expensive ergonomic equipment, experts insist the equipment is a wise investment. “A good keyboard tray may retail around $300; a good chair may retail around $500 to $700,” said Sonia Paquette, professional ergonomist and doctor of occupational therapy. She points out that the cost of the health claims that stem from not having these devices is much higher. “Some of these hard claims cost many tens of thousands of dollars just of medical treatment, let alone cost of replacement, absenteeism, loss of work production, etc.”

8- Train workers on how to use equipment
Providing adjustable furniture and equipment is only the first step in creating an ergonomically sound workstation. “A big issue that I have encountered a lot lately is employee inability to properly adjust their own office chairs,” Turina said. “Many times, employers can invest $500 in an excellent adjustable chair, but employees still experience a bad workstation fit.” The problem often is twofold: Workers do not know how to adjust their equipment, and they do not know the most ergonomically beneficial way to set up their workstation. Train workers on both the ideal setup and how to operate adjustable equipment accordingly.

9- Keep your feet on the floor
One of the first questions Paquette asks workers is whether their feet touch the floor when seated at their desk. “It sounds like an incredibly simple question,” she said, “but very often workers have their keyboard tray on the desktop, so in order to reach it, they need to jack up their chair so high that their feet can barely touch the floor.” She added that unless an employee’s feet are on the floor, a chair will not be able to reduce pain and discomfort. She recommended options such as adjustable keyboard trays or rolling tables adjusted to the proper height to eliminate this problem. Although footrests are a “second-best option,” their small surface may impede some of the worker’s movement.

10- Provide document holders
Frequently typing from hard copy can lead to neck strain if a worker is forced to repeatedly look down to the desk and back to the computer screen. Turina recommends providing document holders to reduce this strain. “These document holders are reasonably priced, and eliminate excessive cervical motion and help to prevent muscle imbalances,” he said. Document holders also are good for the eyes, according to the St. Louis-based American Optometric Association. Keeping reference materials close to the monitor reduces the need for your eyes to change focus as you look from the document to the monitor.

How training and orientation are crucial to keeping new workers safe

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Imagine you’re starting a new job.

You have to meet your co-workers, learn the ins and outs of the company, and begin performing your duties.

Meanwhile, you have to stay safe. This can be a challenge for new workers: Employees in their first month on the job have more than 3 times the risk for a lost-time injury than workers who have been at their job for more than a year, according to research from the Toronto-based Institute for Work & Health.

Possible reasons for this? Peter Smith, IWH scientist, points out that new workers may be performing unfamiliar tasks – some of them hazardous. In addition, the workers may be unsure about their safety rights and responsibilities, and might feel uncomfortable speaking up about a hazard.

“We can only speculate on the ‘why,’” said Curtis Breslin, another IWH scientist who has collaborated with Smith on research about new worker safety. “One thing studies have shown is that there’s a lack of familiarity. That’s a common theme that could be contributing to new workers’ increased risk. The other possibility is that new workers might be encountering more hazards. Or their risk perception – they don’t have the knowledge and awareness, so they’re underestimating the risks. It could be issues with training, maybe they’re not being trained [or receiving] on-the-job, hard-knocks-type training that happens in the first or second month.”

IWH research has found that few new workers receive safety training – 1 out of 5 among a sample of Canadian workers, according to a 2007 study.

“The fact almost 80 percent of workers who were in their first year of employment could not remember receiving any workplace safety or orientation training is worrying for a few reasons,” Smith said. “This likely results in these workers being without important knowledge that could prevent them, or one of their co-workers, [from] getting injured.”

However, according to IWH, as novice workers gain job experience, their risk declines.

Looking at the numbers

In 2013, nearly one-third of the nonfatal occupational injuries or illnesses that involved time away from work were suffered by workers with less than one year of service, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nearly one-quarter of these cases resulted in 31 or more days away from work, said Ken Kolosh, statistics manager at the National Safety Council.

Certain subgroups of new workers are at heightened injury risk. In the agriculture, forestry and fishing industry, 45.4 percent of the injuries and illnesses in 2013 occurred among workers with less than one year of experience. In the construction and extraction industry, it was 34.9 percent.

“That makes sense because a lot of those industries are cyclical; they’re seasonally employed,” Kolosh said. “Almost by definition, many of those workers are always going to be new employees. The construction industry has a lot of seasonal employment. It has a lot of contractor-type workers, so a larger proportion of that population by definition is going to have less than three months of service.”

Construction workers frequently change jobsites as well, which can present problems.

“Every day, you have to be aware of what’s going on. You have to have good communication,” said Scott Schneider, director of occupational safety and health at the Washington-based Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America. “It’s less an issue on unionized sites, where people have a substantial amount of safety training in apprenticeship programs. They also, as apprentices, get mentored along the way. It’s still an issue in the sense you’re going to a different jobsite, and you may not be familiar with that jobsite.”

IWH research published in 2012 concluded that risk was higher among new workers who were older, men and workers in the “goods sector,” including construction and manufacturing. This may be because these jobs have more physical demands, and older workers might be more physically susceptible to injury, Breslin said.