No one wants to put the health of their employees at risk—but far too often, safety falls on the back burner due to lack of time or resources.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an average of 80,000 office and administrative workers suffer on-the-job injuries each year. Many of these are preventable by tackling commonly overlooked hazards, like eye strain and environmental toxins.
Below are some of the factors and risks that HR professionals should be mindful of, and how to best address them.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines ergonomics as “the science of designing the job to fit the worker.” Instead of physically forcing the worker’s body to fit the job, tasks, tools, and equipment are strategically designed to reduce an employee’s physical stress. Getting this right isn’t just good for the employee’s health, it’s good for productivity, too.
In the information age, many jobs are dependent on prolonged computer use. Excessive screen use, coupled with limited physical activity, may be one of the most overlooked employee health risks. For some individuals, overexposure to blue light can result in chronic headaches, itchy or red eyes, and even double vision.
To prevent lasting injury, OSHA recommends that employees take a 10 minute break for every hour spent looking at a screen. In addition, dimming overhead lights and utilizing desk lamps can also help minimize glare and prevent eye strain.
For most workers, excess screen-time goes hand-in-hand with excess sitting. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for employees to remain seated at their desk for a full eight hour day or even longer. Prolonged sitting puts employees at risk for spine and disk damage, muscle degeneration, poor circulation, and even blood clots.
Encourage employees to regularly get up and stretch, or simply get outside and go for a walk during their breaks. Budget permitting, consider investing in a few standing desks that employees can use throughout the day.
It’s important to be mindful of environmental hazards in the workplace, too. Some of these, like mold and asbestos, are commonly found within the structure of a workplace. Making matters worse, despite their significant impacts on employee health, these toxins are often invisible to the naked eye.
Mold can trigger allergies and asthma in some people, especially when they are exposed to it for a long period of time. In some cases, people may experience eye, throat, and skin irritation, or coughing and wheezing—all of which can make it difficult to complete even the simplest task.
Offices on bottom floors or in basements receiving little outside light run the biggest risk for mold. If these areas of your office building have not been inspected for mold, or if employees have been complaining about any of the above symptoms, it’s best to bring in a professional to inspect the property.
Asbestos can be found within the infrastructure of many older buildings, as it was commonly used as a building material prior to 1980. The toxin could be hiding in a number of different places, including insulation, flooring, heaters, piping, and ceiling tiles.
While asbestos is typically safe on its own, it can become dangerous when disturbed. If asbestos-containing materials become damaged during a renovation, airborne particles could be released and inhaled. If these particles are inhaled, they increase employees’ risk of developing mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer that develops in the lining of the lungs. Symptoms sometimes mimic those of the flu or other respiratory infections, and may not present themselves for 15-50 years after exposure.
Though mold and asbestos are common environmental toxins in the workplace, there are many others to consider. Get to know your building and be proactive in ensuring optimal environmental health, even if it means hiring outside help.
Work Organization Hazards
Sometimes office hazards are more psychological in nature. Long and short-term stressors include unmanageable workloads, lack of flexibility, sexual harassment, and employment uncertainty.
Like all other workplace hazards, prevention is key. Workers should always be encouraged to communicate their stresses and concerns with management and HR without feeling fear of retaliation or backlash. In cases where employees may simply be burned-out, be sure to review your vacation policy to ensure everyone has time to unwind.
The Department of Labor has a set of recommended practices for safety and health programs that outlines workplace hazard identification, prevention, and control.
First, collect and review information regarding all of the possible dangers within your workplace. After your initial inspection, follow through on an ongoing basis as new hazards may arise later on. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, develop a list of priorities by assessing both the severity and likelihood of each potential risk.
In the hectic world of business, workplace hazards typically don’t make it to the top of management’s to-do list until someone gets hurt. With worker safety and wellbeing resting in HR’s hands, foster an environment where health and safety aren’t just checklist items, but part of your company culture. Ultimately, those efforts will have a positive effect on the bottom-line because happy and healthy employees are more productive employees.