It seems like a simple question with a simple answer. Is your office safe? At first blush, you’ll probably look around and say that given there are no chemicals, fire hazards or other obvious dangers that everything is perfectly fine. But like the Chinese water torture, it could be the slow, continual hazards that will cause you long term pain. Office safety is often forgotten but is important. When you’re self employed, not working is the same as not earning. And not earning equals not eating!
About five years ago I required surgery for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. For the first time, how I did my work directly impacted on my capacity to keep working. Spending a lot of time in front of a screen, tapping away at a keyboard without giving much thought to the consequences had a cost. I’d never really though much about it as I was young (under 40) and I’d always considered Carpal Tunnel Syndrome an old person’s condition.
The trouble is that, like many freelancers, I’ve taken the cheap and easy road of buying cheap office furniture, accepting whatever keyboard and mouse came with my computer and not doing much about office lighting. I scarcely gave a thought to how I lifted heavy objects like boxes of printer paper, moved furniture or how I stored things on top of book cases.
In short, office safety was not on my radar, let alone a priority. But here are five things I’ve done.
1. Changing my tools
The trick to avoiding injuries and over-use conditions is to avoid repetitive tasks. The trouble is that some of our work is repetitive. I now make a point of using different keyboards and pointing devices at different times so that may hands aren’t always in the same position when I type.
Similarly, I switch between a mouse and a trackpad for my pointing device.
While the differences are subtle, they ensure that the angles your wrists and shoulders aren’t always the same and therefore putting pressure on the same joints, tendons and ligaments.
2. Taking regular breaks
There are lots of productivity methods that advocate setting aside part of every working hour as a break time like the Pomodoro Technique. Aside from giving your work output a boost, they serve to move your muscles around in different ways and give you a chance to loosen up stiff muscles.
3. Your desk and chair
It’s axiomatic that we tend to spend the least possible on our most used equipment. We try to skimp on our computers in order to save $100 and we do the same with our desk and chair. Think about it – a decent desk is likely to last you ten years or more. So saving $100 is only saving about $10 per year of use (and it’s even less if you’re financially minded and can figure out the future value of that money) or one coffee and cake session at your favourite café. It’s a small price to pay for your safety.
Find office furniture that is ergonomically matched to your body shape and the work you’ll be doing. With the desk, getting something that is height adjustable is important. We are not all the same height so it doesn’t make sense that all our desks are the same does it?
In general, the more detailed the work you do, the more light you need. Simple – isn’t it? Of course, getting an electrician in to rework your office lighting is expensive and, if you rent, probably not practical.
The “correct” lighting levels can be tricky but there are guides that tell you what the recommended levels are for different work situations. For example, Sustainability Victoria has an office lighting guide [PDF] based on AS1680 – the Australian Standard for interior lighting.
Judicious use of desk lamps, putting your desk near a window (but avoiding glare on your computer screen) and positioning your workspace to take advantage of existing lighting can go a long way to making your workspace more productive and less tiring.
5. Where do you put things?
This is something I’ve always struggled with. I have quite a large office with four bookcases, two cupboards, a sideboard and a generously sized desk. While that sounds great it also means that I have to think carefully about where I put things.
However, I’ve settled for keeping heavier objects at floor level – things like boxes of paper and equipment that I receive for product reviews I write. That way, I can either push them around or get someone to help me lift them easily.
It’s important to learn about safe lifting techniques so that you protect yourself. After all, if you’re injured, who’s going to run your business?