Injuries and illness that can result from office work
Injuries and illness that usually occur from office work are usually musculoskeletal disorders. These injuries are often due to use over a prolonged period of time. Other injuries such as cuts, lacerations, slips/trips/falls, burns, acoustic shock, and stress (to name a few) can also occur in the office environment, therefore should also be considered.
Work-related Musculoskeletal Disorders (WMSDs)
Work related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs) are injuries or disorders of the muscles, tendons, ligaments, cartilage, joints, nerves, connective tissue and/or supporting blood vessels associated with exposure to risk factors in the workplace.
WMSDs are usually associated with tasks involving forceful overexertion, repetitive movement, sustained postures, awkward postures, hand-arm vibration and whole-body vibration. When a number of risk factors are present at any one time, within a task, the risk may significantly increase, as the risk factors may interact and potentiate the risk.
Injuries and disorders which fall under this umbrella term include manual handling injuries, Occupational Overuse Syndrome (OOS), Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI) and Cumulative Trauma Disorders (CTDs). Manual handling refers to any activity requiring the use of force exerted by a person to lift, push, pull, carry or otherwise move or restrain something. Examples of manual handling tasks commonly performed in offices include lifting and carrying boxes of photocopying paper; moving office furniture and equipment such as computers and printers; handling large files, books and legal documents; prolonged data entry; and opening and closing filing cabinet drawers. Occupational Overuse Syndrome is a collective term for a range of conditions characterised by discomfort or pain in muscles, tendons and other soft tissues, with or without visible symptoms. It is usually associated with tasks which involve repetitive or forceful movement and maintenance of constrained or awkward postures. More information on manual handling injuries can be found on the manual tasks page.
A WMSD may present suddenly, or it may develop gradually with various levels of intensity. A single act of over-exertion may lead to a WMSD, but it is more likely that a WMSD will develop from minor strains over a period of time or from gradual wear and tear of the body. This is often as a result of cumulative strain and/or work of a similar nature over time. Office work, especially computer use, has been associated to conditions of the hand, arm, shoulder and neck areas.
WMSD risk factors that have been associated with office work include prolonged sustained postures and repetitive movement associated with intense keyboard or mouse use, high demands on vision, sustained mental effort and peak demands or set work rates. These factors relate more to the OOS issues as often force is less of a concern. Control of these factors is discussed under Strategies and solutions.
Slips, trips and falls
Slip and trip hazards are a major source of office accidents and injuries. Slips often occur when a person walks on a slippery floor. This can be avoided by the prompt clean-up of spilled materials. Trips often result from obstructions and uneven surfaces and can usually be avoided by ensuring that floor surfaces are clear and even.
Falls are likely if chairs or shelves are used as steps to reach upper storage levels. Falls can also occur on poorly designed or badly lit stairwells or worn stair edges. Slips, trips and falls often result in fractures, bruises and musculoskeletal disorders, but could also result in more severe injuries. More information about slips, trips and falls can be found on our slips and trips webpage.
Psychological health effects
Work is generally beneficial to mental health and personal wellbeing. It provides people with structure and purpose and a sense of identity. It also provides opportunities for people to develop and use their skills, to form social relationships, and to increase their feelings of self-worth.
There are circumstances, however, in which work can have adverse consequences for health and wellbeing. Risks to psychological health at work may arise from organisational or personal factors, with the major factors being poor design of work and jobs, poor communication and interpersonal relationships, bullying, occupational violence and fatigue.
Risks to psychological health due to work should be viewed in the same way as other safety and health risks, and a commitment to prevention of work-related stress should be included in an organisation’s safety and health policies. More information on psychosocial health can be found on our bullying, aggression and stress webpages.
Fatigue and working hours
Fatigue is an acute or chronic state of tiredness which affects employee performance, safety and health and requires rest or sleep for recovery. Fatigue may affect physical and mental capacities and increase the risk of workplace incidents. It can also contribute to workplace conflict and absenteeism. Through a build-up of sleep debt, fatigue can result in errors of judgement that may lead to injury or death, affecting not only the employee, but the safety and health of others as well.
The fatigue factors that influence risk include:
- mentally and physically demanding work (very high demands);
- long periods of time awake (eg long hours of work extended by long commuting times);
- inadequate amount or quality of sleep (eg when ‘on-call’);
- inadequate rest breaks (eg inadequate or poorly timed rest breaks or rest breaks where the environment is not conducive to rest);
- disruption of the body clock (eg working when we would normally be sleeping);
- environmental stresses (eg noisy or hot environments); and
- work requirements, work schedules or systems of reward (pay, recognition or promotion) that provide incentives to work longer and harder than may be safe.
The risk of injury from fatigue should be assessed in all work places and roles including those which are office based. More information on fatigue and working hours can be found in the Code of practice: Working hours or on our fatigue webpage.
Health effects related to computer use
Working with computers involves safety and health issues directly related to sitting in front of screens, which have potential physical, visual and psychological impacts on human beings. Good design of the computer, the environment, the furniture and work practices will minimise the possible negative outcomes of computer use.
Conventional computer systems have used cathode ray tube (CRT) technology for the display. Thin film transistor (TFT) liquid crystal displays (LCDs) have become an increasingly popular technology. LCDs offer many advantages over CRTs, including:
- thinner and lighter displays which require a narrower work surface at the same screen to eye distance and are easier to reposition;
- greater postural variety during computer work;
- freedom from flicker and geometric image distortions at the screen edges;
- uniform screen brightness and substantially less glare;
- considerably less energy use and heat emission;
- better screen privacy because they cannot be clearly viewed from acute side angles; and
- no VLF/ELF electromagnetic radiation emissions associated with the scanning electron beam required for a CRT.
Risk of eye strain
It is generally believed and current research shows that computer use is not associated with long-term deterioration or damage to eyes or eyesight, nor does it make existing defects worse. However, some users may experience temporary visual fatigue, presenting as a range of symptoms including impaired visual performance, red or sore eyes and headaches. It may also make users more aware of pre-existing visual problems. The adoption of awkward postures may contribute to neck and upper limb discomfort. A dry air conditioned environment can contribute to eye discomfort. The risk factors associated with computer use and visual fatigue include:
- staying in the same position for a long time (reduced eye and head movement);
- poor positioning of the screen;
- poor legibility of the screen or source documents;
- poor lighting, including glare and reflections; and
- a flickering or jittering image on the screen.
Eye strain can be prevented by taking regular breaks to look away from the computer to a far spot, walking away from the screen and giving the eyes some exercise, such as blinking, can decrease the effects of long periods of concentrating on a screen.
The purpose of eye tests for computer users is to identify and correct pre-existing visual defects that may cause discomfort as a result of the visual concentration needed for many screen-based tasks. Some organisations have an agreement for vision testing for all computer users and others may provide a subsidy for prescription glasses. For more information see ACTU Guidelines for Screen Based Work or Comcare’s Eye Health in the Workplace .
Spectacle use and computers
Many middle-aged workers suffer difficulty with close work, known as presbyopia, and require spectacles for correction. Bifocals are designed to correct vision when looking down through the lower portion of the lens for close work. This may be suitable for reading a document, however, when reading information on a screen, computer users are generally looking horizontally over the section of the lens designed to correct their vision. Many users lean forward and tilt their chins up to look through the lower part of the lens. This unnatural posture is unsatisfactory and can result in neck discomfort.
Controls for spectacle use and computers
In these circumstances, spectacles with full corrective or multi-focal lenses should be used and working documents located between the screen and keyboard or alongside the screen to ensure the same focal distances for both. This reduces the likelihood of the operator adopting unnatural neck postures. Computer users concerned about their vision or spectacles should seek advice from their medical or optical specialist.
Radiation and computer screens
Radiation and computers
Computer screens emit very low level electric and magnetic fields. There is no evidence to indicate that electric or magnetic fields from computer screens or associated wireless devices (eg modem, printer, wireless keyboard) represent a health risk. For more information, see the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) website.
Prevention of computer radiation emissions
There are no Australian Standards or limits set for radiation exposure. The so called ‘Swedish limits’ for computers, designed for measurement and testing of physical emissions, are sometimes used as voluntary recommendations to encourage manufacturers to produce monitors with extremely low emissions.
Studies have so far shown only very low to insignificant levels of various radiation emissions.
So-called radiation filters for screens are unnecessary and may degrade the screen image. The best protection operators have from electric field emissions is the screen. It is therefore best that operators are located in front of the screen. The emission of electromagnetic radiation is mainly from the back of the unit and the cabling rather than from the screen. Although this level is low, it is prudent to further minimise any potential risk by ensuring that cables are housed and shielded where possible and personnel are not located closer to the sides or rear of any computer monitor than to the screen of their own unit. Organisations should continue to review information as it becomes available. Users who remain concerned about the small emission of radiation from conventional screens may prefer to use LCDs.
Laptop users should be advised against the long-term use of the computer on their lap because of possible thermal effects.
In summary, there are claims that the low radiation emissions from CRT screens cause adverse health effects in operators. These claims are not supported by scientific research findings or reliable epidemiological studies at this time. On current evidence, the emissions are considered to pose minimal risk to the safety and health of computer operators.
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