Avoid Cubicle Catastrophes & Office Injuries

April 8, 2008
The National Safety Council encourages you to assess your workspace and make changes that might help keep you and your colleagues safe

While the office setting lacks drill presses, band saws, and other obvious risks that we equate with workplace safety, thousands of working Americans are injured in offices every year. The National Safety Council encourages you to assess your workspace and make changes that might help keep you and your colleagues safe.

Perhaps the biggest risk is not being aware of risks - not realizing the potential dangers associated with some common office features that can lead to injuries or even death.

File cabinets and other obstacles
File cabinets are a major source of office injuries. When too many drawers are open at once, cabinets can become unbalanced and tip over if not secured. People can bump into or trip over unattended open drawers, and drawers can be accidentally pulled out too far and dropped.

National Safety Council data shows that nearly 75 percent of all strain or exertion mishaps occur when an employee is trying to move an object, often without supervisor authorization. Office equipment, such as copy machines or printers, can be dropped when being moved by an employee. For this reason, businesses should provide training and proper equipment in an office.

Office and administrative support employees in 2006 suffered 18,990 injuries from overexertion that required days away from work, mostly from holding, carrying, or lifting objects, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Objects on an employee's desk also present a hazard. Pencils, knives, and scissors should never be stored with the point upward or toward the employee. Paper cutters should have guards, and glassware should never rest near the edge of a desk or table.

Electricity and fires
The most frequently cited OSHA violations in offices involve electrical hazards, and electrical distribution and lighting equipment are the leading cause of office structure fires.

Part of the reason for this high risk might be that older office buildings are not equipped to handle the electrical demand imposed by the many devices that now require outlets: computers, fax machines, copiers, scanners, paper shredders, etc. Although most office fires start out - and stay - small, an environment of loose papers, boxes, and books provides a good fuel source for any blaze to grow out of control.

Deaths in office fires are somewhat rare - an average of four deaths and about 50 injuries occur each year. But, a major factor in deaths and injuries from office fires is workers ignoring warnings and staying at their desks.

You should have an evacuation plan for tenants/occupants, who should be familiar with the plan.

Falling down, sitting down
Keeping an office and aisle clear of boxes and debris can cut down on trips and falls, which are the leading causes of accidents for employees in an office. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, office and administrative support employees suffered 20,560 disabling falls in 2006 that required time away from work.

While people recognize hazards posed by stairs more readily than those caused by chairs, workers are exposed more frequently to chairs and can injure themselves when sitting down, getting up, or moving about. Less frequent are injuries from leaning back and tilting in chairs, or from workers putting their feet on their desks.

Improper use of a chair, such as in place of a ladder, can also result in injuries. Something as simple as walking with a lidless coffee cup also can lead to a fall from slipping on a puddle of spilled coffee.

Seeing straight
As computer use in office buildings increases, so do negative health effects from the working posture. OSHA reported eyestrain and irritation are among the most frequently reported complaints from users of video display terminals, which consist of a computer, screen, and keyboard. Fatigue and musculoskeletal problems also can develop from sitting still for lengthy periods at a workstation.

Employees can take several steps to reduce these hazards. Workstations and lighting should be arranged to avoid glare on the computer screen, which can cause discomfort or loss in visual performance. Workers should also be seated in positions that provide back, arm, leg, and foot support; display screens and keyboards should be adjustable.

Workers should take breaks from the workstation to relieve fatigue, and they should mix up job tasks to include work away from the computer. OSHA also recommends ergonomic equipment for workers, but simply purchasing it may not be enough - proper training is needed.

Find more information at Facility Safety Management magazine (www.fsmmag.com).

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