Turning to an online message board for help, an office worker posted the following problem:
“Every time I sit down [at my office desk] the hair on my arms is attracted to the armrests of my chair; when I stand up, my pant legs are stuck to my legs; and when I touch the top of my chair, I get shocked. I use a thick plastic chair mat [under my chair] which is over carpet. Any ideas to prevent this?”
This worker is experiencing the result of static electricity, and it is a far bigger problem for workers in offices and those who use workstations in warehouses and industrial locations than many building owners and managers may realize. Some estimates claim that as many as 80% of computer failures are the result of static electricity.
In addition, static electricity can actually magnetize a surface. This means it can cause dust and dirt to collect in computer components and other electrical devices commonly found on office desks and other surfaces, which can lead to malfunctioning. This same magnetism can also cause soil and dirt to be pulled into carpet fibers, which can result in the need for more frequent vacuuming and carpet extraction to keep the carpets clean.
Static electricity is defined as a stationary electric charge, typically produced by friction that causes sparks or crackling. For the most part, static electricity is more a nuisance than a serious problem, as noted by our office worker earlier, but it can cause significant damage, even beyond harming electrical devices. In 2008, a fire badly damaged a paint factory in New Haven, Connecticut. Investigators determined that static electricity from a vacuum cleaner ignited combustible dust. The fire caused the release of toxic fumes that sent 23 firefighters and two factory workers to local hospitals.1
According to Allen Rathey, President of InstructionLink/Jan Train Inc., “Low amperage, or [electrical] current from static charges, which ranges from 30 volts to 50,000 volts, is usually harmless to humans, but modern circuit boards can be damaged by a charge of as low as 30 to 50 volts.”
Some carpeting materials such as nylon, one of the most common carpet fibers installed in offices, and other synthetics tend to be static-prone. As we walk over the carpet, this static electricity can build up on our shoes and clothing, even jewelry and other items, and may then be redistributed to the things we touch such as computers, chairs, desks, and other surfaces. This is when we experience the shock and the potential electrical component damage can occur.
Ways to Zap Static
One of the best ways to reduce static electricity in an office/warehouse setting is through climate control. Static electricity is a bigger problem in a dry environment or when relative humidity is below 50%. A humidification unit built into the HVAC system, especially for use during the winter months, can reduce the static electricity below the threshold of human perception and minimize if not eliminate its potential to damage electrical devices.
Another option, specifically if the office space is carpeted, is the use of anti-static carpet sprays. These sprays add tiny particulates and conductive substances to carpet fibers, which help in dissipating static charges. The label on the product should indicate how many square feet the spray mist will cover and for how long. Usually it protects against static charges for about a month. Some products are safer for the environment than others, so some due diligence may be required if environmental issues are a concern.
A third option is the placement of anti-static mats in areas where people are complaining of static electricity, where there is potential for static electricity, or where electronic equipment is used that can be affected by static electricity. Anti-static mats are made with special yarns that can be engineered to discharge static to help protect electronic components from damage. These mats use cushioned foam to help discharge and prevent static electricity. With some anti-static matting systems, voltage is reduced significantly enough so that any discharge of electricity will not harm appliances, people, and equipment in the area.
Also, some anti-static matting systems have a “ground cord” that can be connected to an electrical outlet. These are designed for dry areas and can prove effective in warehouses and other industrial areas of a facility.
With the static zapped, the result is a safer workplace for people and electronic equipment.
Adam Strizzi works for Crown Matting Technologies.
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