Chapter 17: Basic Office Safety



Because our positions and our curriculum are becoming more and more dependent upon technology, we spend a great deal of time sitting in front of computers. Individuals who use computers for extended periods of time, whether for work, study or fun, are experiencing more eye fatigue and discomfort in the hands, wrists, arms, shoulders neck and back. This is usually caused by poor work habits, poor workstation design or improper use of workstation components. In most cases, corrective measures are relatively simple and inexpensive. Generally, if you spend more than 2 consecutive hours at your computer workstation a day, you could be susceptible to problems.

The following guidelines are intended to help employees and students understand and reduce health risks associated with computer work.

  1. Work Surfaces: The working surface area of your workstation should be sufficient to accommodate the computer and all associated materials. There should be adequate space beneath the surface for the operator’s legs and feet to fit comfortably.
  2. Keyboard and Mouse: The keyboard and mouse should be directly in front of the operator at a height that favors a neutral posture (23″-28″ off floor). If they are placed at standard desk height (30″), they are too high for most people. Raising the chair solves this problem for some people, but an adjustable keyboard holder with a mouse deck is usually the best solution. The objective is a posture with upper arms relaxed and wrists straight in line with the forearm. Wrist rests may help and are occasionally built into keyboard holders, but if they are too thick, thin, or too hard, they can also cause problems-so be careful.
  3. Monitor: the monitor should be positioned at approximately arm’s length and directly in front of or just slightly to the side of the operator. The top of the screen should be no higher than eye level with the seated operator. Many people find a low monitor to be more comfortable. Problems often develop with excessive monitor height when a monitor is placed on top of another object. Some monitors have adjustable monitor arms which can easily raise or lower monitor height, especially in multiple user environments like labs.
  4. Chair: A well designed chair is essential. Posture, circulation, level of effort required to maintain good posture, and the amount of strain on the neck are all affected by chair design. An adjustable seat back is best for support in the lumbar region of the back. The operator should be able to adjust seat height and seat pan angle from a seated position. Arm rests can reduce fatigue as well.
  5. Accessories: Additional accessories can sometimes improve operator comfort. Document holders can minimize eye, neck and shoulder strain by positioning the document closer to the monitor. A footrest may be used by individuals who cannot place their feet firmly on the ground otherwise, but this is a poor alternative to a well fitted chair. Task lamps can also help illuminate source documents when room lighting is reduced.
  6. Screen Glare: Glare can cause eyestrain, resulting in burring, tightness, watering, blurring, double vision and headaches. Bifocal wearers often experience less problems with eye and neck strain if the monitor is lowered. Screen glare can be eliminated by reducing room lighting and using task lamps, using window shades, curtains or blinds, positioning the monitor at a right angle to the window, and tilting the monitor to avoid reflection with overhead lighting. Glare screens may be purchased but are not normally necessary if one of the other methods is used. See your optometrist if eye problems persist.
  7. Purchasing Computer Equipment: Good attention should be paid to ergonomics issues when computer equipment is purchased. Consult Purchasing Specialist or DoIT before placing an order.
  8. Take a Break: Looking at a computer screen for long periods can cause stress on the eyes. Getting up and stretching or walking periodically helps reduce fatigue, as does resting your hands from typing.


Noise can be defined as any unwanted sound. For noise levels in offices, the most common effects are interference with speech communication, annoyance, and distraction. It can cause errors to result and impair work or academic performance. Most noise can be controlled. Ways noise levels can be reduced include:

  1. Quiet Equipment: When purchasing or replacing equipment, you should evaluate the equipment’s quietness. Proper maintenance of existing equipment can also result in reduced noise levels. Tightening loose parts and lubrication are part of good machine maintenance.
  2. Location of Equipment: Often the positioning of noise generating equipment can be a detriment to people working in an office environment. Impact printers, copiers, faxes, etc. should be placed as far away from workstations as possible.
  3. Sound Barriers: Wall dividers that absorb sound may also improve noisy working environments. Some are actually acoustically treated and actively absorb sound that otherwise would bounce around the room. Rubber pads under noise generating equipment can also reduce noise levels of operating equipment. Some equipment may also be purchased with acoustic deadening covers or housings.
  4. Schedules: Operating continuous feed printers or copiers at times when fewer people are in the office may also help.


The indoor environment in any building is a result of the interaction among the site, climate, building systems, construction techniques, contaminant sources (building materials, furnishings, moisture, activities), and the occupants of the building. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identifies two types of health concerns associated with buildings – ‘Building-Related Illnesses” (BRI) such as radon, asbestos, and carbon monoxide contamination; and the “Sick Building Syndrome” (SBS) from contaminants in building insulation materials, building ducts, or chemically treated carpets where the occupants are completely dependent on a central ventilating system for the air they breathe.

  1. Health Effects: Employees and students are affected by indoor air contaminants such as poor ventilation and environmental tobacco smoke. In the SBS, people complain of nausea, headaches, burning or dry eyes, drowsiness or dizziness, difficulty in wearing contact lenses, sinus congestion, sneezing and respiratory problems. Family physicians may treat these symptoms as upper respiratory infections, but when the person returns to the same indoor air environment, the symptoms recur. Foul air can result in lost time at work or in academic problems for the student who misses classes due to illness. Groups most affected by indoor air problems are persons with allergies or asthma, people with respiratory disease, people whose immune systems are suppressed due to chemotherapy, radiation therapy or disease, and contact lens wearers.
  2. Major Causes of Indoor Air Pollution:
    1. Soil Gas: Examples are dust radon, leakage from underground fuel tanks or contaminants surviving from previous uses of the property. These contaminants typically come up through the foundations of buildings.
    2. Equipment: Examples are dust and dirt in duct work or other components of the HVAC systems, microbiological growth in drip pans, humidifiers, and coils; refrigerant leakage, emissions from office equipment or elevators, systems that were improperly designed installed, poorly maintained, or are beyond their useful life.
    3. Unsanitary Conditions/Water Damage: Examples are microbiological growth in areas of surface condensation, standing water from clogged or poorly designed drains, water standing in crawl spaces or on rooftop drains and gutter systems, water damaged furnishings, improperly maintained cooling towers, and dry traps which allow sewer gas to pass.
    4. Air Emissions from Outside Sources: Examples are pollen, dust, fungal spores, industrial pollutants, vehicle exhaust, loading docks, dumpster odors and re-entrained air from the building drawn back into it.
    5. Building Components and Furnishings: Examples are textured surfaces such as carpeting, vinyl wall coverings, formaldehyde in pressed wood products, particle board, plywood paneling and fiberboard, and asbestos insulation.
    6. Pest, Cleaning and Maintenance Supplies: Examples are pesticides used in training infestations, paint, caulk, sealants, adhesives, cleaning materials, and deodorizers.
  3. Smoking: Smoking can damage health. Smoking has been linked to lung cancer, cancer of the larynx, esophagus, stomach, and bladder. It is also linked to higher levels of diabetes in women. Smokers have twice the risk of heart diseases and two to three times the risk of stroke. Pregnant women who smoke have higher rates of miscarriage and premature babies. UMW does not permit smoking in any building.
  4. If you Think There is a Problem with Indoor Air:
    1. Complain: Alert someone in authority of your concerns. Before something can be done, someone needs to know about the problem. Telling you department head or filing a concern with the Facilities Work Order Desk are good first steps.
    2. Investigate: The Facilities Services Department shall investigate the concern. Employees who have been affected by the problem or seem to have the same problems should be interviewed by facilities employees responsible for HVAC systems. A visual inspection of the building’s HVAC system should be conducted. Preventive maintenance logs should be reviewed and evaluated, considering the building’s problem history. All filters should be checked. If the problem is not discovered in this way, the Facilities Services Department should contract with a vendor, such as an industrial hygienist, experienced in such matters to conduct an environmental assessment. Nonetheless, the problem should be isolated.
    3. Fresh Air Ventilation Standard: The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recommends 20 cubic feet of fresh air per person.
    4. Indoor Relative Humidity: Indoor relative humidity levels should be less than 60 percent.
    5. Indoor Carbon Dioxide Levels: ASHRAE recommends a maximum of 1,000 parts per million (PPM) of carbon dioxide for every 7 people working within 100 square feet.
    6. General Maintenance: Regular maintenance and inspection of heating and ventilation systems should be conducted semi-annually; sooner if complaints arise. The installation of airborne sensors in the ventilation system is a part of many monitoring programs.