7 Office Health Hazards—And How to Avoid Them

7 Office Health Hazards—And How to Avoid Them

Office injuries are more common than you think. Learn how to prevent slips and falls, back pain, eyestrain and more.

Americans spend roughly eight hours a day at work during the week and many times, those hours are spent in an office setting. When a majority of your waking hours are at the office, it’s important to be aware of certain risk factors, and what you can do to prevent them.  

Whether it’s eyestrain from long days on the computer or back problems from slipping on a wet floor in the break room, take precaution with these tips.

1. Slips, Trips and Falls
Cedric McCord, MD of Doctors Hospital of Augusta says the most common office injuries he sees are related to slipping or tripping.

Cleaners and wax treatments will lead to slippery floors, and drink spills can be a major hazard, too. “I always talk to folks about just making sure they are aware of their surroundings. It's prudent that when someone does anything to a floor, they put a sign out, but I can tell you I've done this a long time, more than 20 years, and I see this problem over and over,” says McCord. If the floor is glistening, avoid the area or walk slowly.

Tangled or exposed cords can cause you to trip. Any electrical cords -- think power cords for laptops and phones -- should be secured and away from the floor.

And McCord can’t stress the importance of observation enough. “There's a term that we used in the Army when I was there for 29 years -- situational awareness. If you're going to sit down, make sure the chair, especially when it has wheels, is where you think it is or you will plop down on the floor.” Falls like that can lead to leg and back injuries.

2. Poor Ergonomics
Many office jobs require long hours at a desk and on the computer, but did you know that going through the same motions over and over again (like typing and using your mouse) and poor ergonomics, the way you are set up at work, can lead to bad posture, pain, fatigue, numbness and weakness?

McCord says that when patients have ergonomic complaints, it’s often because their work station isn’t set up properly. Talk to your manager or Human Resources department to see if your workstation can be evaluated. A good working environment should include a chair that provides lower back support, allows you to sit with your hips bent at a 90-degree angle (a bigger hip angle means you’re slouching) and your feet flat on the floor (they don’t have to be directly under the chair). You can also use the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s online guide to set up your workstation and adjust any equipment to avoid discomfort. Get additional workstation setup tips here.

3. Eyestrain and Dry Eyes
If you’re glued to your computer for hours on end, your eyes can become dry and irritated. Bright office lighting can cause strain, too.  

McCord says that when spend a long period of time looking at a fixed object -- such as your computer monitor -- at a fixed distance, you can start to lose some of your vision. “The eye muscles start to get weak because you're not using them,” says McCord.

He recommends getting up once an hour for a few minutes and doing something that doesn’t involve your computer. (In fact, standing up every hour has other health benefits, too.) The National Safety Council (NSC) says that to prevent screen glares, close window blinds and, if possible, dim overhead lighting. Your computer monitor should be just below eye level. Increasing font size on documents can make it easier to read -- meaning less eyestrain. Keep eye drops at your desk for times when your eyes are irritated.   

4. Strained Back
You know that careers like construction take a toll on your body, but even at the office you can overdo it and pull a muscle. “Overexertion is still a problem, even in the office, because folks have a tendency to want to move things,” McCord says. “Folks picking up boxes of paper, or a delivery arrives at the office and people want to move things around.” McCord advises that if something is heavy, especially if it weighs more than 40 pounds, don’t try to move it yourself -- get help or see if there’s some type of lifting assistance device in the office.

When you do bend over or reach to pick something up, make sure the object is close to your body and bend or lift with you legs to avoid back strains.

5. Cuts and Lacerations
McCord says he sometimes sees patients with cuts and lacerations from trying to open a box with scissors or box cutters. “When you get a cut it should be evaluated and you should make sure your tetanus status is up to date,” McCord says. “A tetanus immunization is only good for about 10 years, and most folks that I talk to can't remember the last time they've had one.” See your doctor for stitches if the wound is on your face, longer than ½ inch long, the edges flap open or it goes deep into your skin. If a doctor’s visit isn’t called for, clean the cut with soap and water (not hydrogen peroxide or alcohol) and cover it with a sterile dressing or bandage to avoid infection. Change it at least once a day.

6. Space Heater Hazards
If your office is so cold it feels like the North Pole, it’s okay to keep an electric space heater at your desk, but get the kind that automatically shuts off when tipped over, plug it directly into the wall and make sure you turn it off when not in use. “No one needs to get burned by a space heater,” says McCord. “It happens, but it shouldn’t happen.” On the days when you’re using it, set a reminder in your phone or leave a sticky note on your desk so you’ll remember to power it down. If your cubicle neighbor uses a space heater, check it when you leave, or remind them to turn it off to prevent burns or fires.

7. Colds and Viruses
We’ve all had that work neighbor who’s coughing and blowing their nose from the moment they come to work until the moment they leave. In those cases, remember to use good personal hygiene and wash your hands frequently. It may sound a tad phobic, but try not to touch public areas like door knobs and water coolers with your bare hands -- use a tissue or paper towel instead. And when you’re under the weather with a fever or cough? Do your coworkers a favor and take a sick day. It won’t just protect them, it’ll help you feel better faster.

Medically reviewed in August 2018.

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