Sick of it all

More and more studies are discovering the risks that are associated with long-term office employment.
Sick of it all
By Brid-Aine Conway
Sun 23 Sep 2007 05:33 PM

Research on health in the workplace is usually the domain of high-risk manual jobs like a construction or factory occupation. Working with heavy machinery or installing windows at 512m on the Burj Dubai carries obvious risks, but being employed in an office all day seems like it should be the safest of modern jobs.

So it is both surprising and sobering to discover that not only does working in an office carry health risks - the office has even invented its own syndromes. Sick Building Syndrome, and seated immobility thromboembolism (SIT), are just of the two health risks associated with the office, and quite often, it is those in IT who are most at risk.

Office workers go three or four hours without getting up from their desks, and some workers sit at their screens for up to 14 hours a day.

Last month research was released from Queensland University of Technology (QUT) claiming laser printers emitted particles which could lodge in and damage lungs. According to their press release: "The tiny particles emitted from some home or office laser printers are as dangerous to human health as inhaling cigarette smoke."

The study tested 62 printers, which included models from Canon, HP and Toshiba among others, and found that 17 of them were "high particle emitters" which were releasing "potentially dangerous levels of tiny toner-like material into the air". Professor Lidia Morawska, who conducted the study, called on governments to regulate the emission levels of printers in the same way that car exhaust and factory emissions are regulated.

But before you edge your chair further away from the office printer, there are a number of limitations in the research. The researchers were unable to fully identify the particles that were being emitted, other than that they were "ultra fine" particles that could penetrate deep into the lungs. They also found more particles were emitted when the toner cartridge was new and when printing graphics and images that need more toner, and this was what caused them to link the particle emission with toner use. The researchers themselves admit that not a lot of research has been conducted in this area, and further research is required to gather more solid information.

"The high standard deviation of the average emission rates estimated in this study also indicates that the particle emission process and the behaviour of individual printers are complex and that they are still far from being completely understood. Many factors, such as printer model, printer age, cartridge model and cartridge age may affect the particle emission process and all of these factors require further study," according to the study.

Whether further research will confirm the office printer as an indoor air pollutant or not, there are health risks associated with office work that are inspiring more and more study. The most obvious fact of office life that is detrimental to health is SIT. Spending an excessive amount of time seated in front of your computer (as almost all IT workers do) can have the same affect as long haul flights - the possibility of deep vein thrombosis. DVT - where a blood clot forms, commonly in the legs, and is carried by the bloodstream to the heart, lungs or brain - could result in chest pain, breathlessness or even death from a heart attack or stroke.
The Medical Research Institute in New Zealand issued results from a study on DVT in March this year. From a sample of 62 people admitted to hospital with blood clots, they found that 34% had been sitting at their desks for long periods, whereas 21% had recently taken a long-distance flight (though the study accepted that more people work in offices than fly long-distance). The study found that the problem was most common in the IT industry and call centres. Professor Richard Beasley, who conducted the research, said office workers were going three or four hours without getting up from their desks, and some workers who developed clots sat at their screens for up to 14 hours a day.

Apart from the risk of DVT associated with prolonged seated immobility, there are also more common and obvious problems such as lower back pain or pain in the shoulders, arms or hands, repetitive strain injury (RSI) also associated with prolonged computer use and eye strain from staring at a monitor all day. In particular, workers seated for long periods of time without changing position or in poor seating can develop back problems that can lead to long-term health concerns throughout their life. There is no perfect position to sit in that will not eventually become uncomfortable for your body - the key seems to be to change position as much as you can, and take short walking breaks.

As well as the symptoms associated with immobility, office workers have exhibited signs of general ill health like atopy - an allergic hyper-sensitivity affecting parts of the body not in direct contact with the allergen - which can include eczema, allergic conjunctivitis, allergic rhinitis (irritation or inflammation of the inner nose) or asthma. They have also had headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, shortness of breath, difficulty concentrating and coughs.

All of these maladies can affect an office employee in isolation, but they can also be part of broader problems in the office, generally termed Sick Building Syndrome (SBS). This is a phrase used to describe a wide range of symptoms that have been reported by office workers, where prior ill health is not the cause. Researchers who have conducted studies into SBS have conjectured a number of causes for the syndrome, although a clinical consensus has not yet been reached.

Noise, lighting and temperature can affect workers, but inner air quality (like printer particle emissions) and the use of computer monitors also contribute to SBS. Interestingly, another of the contributors to SBS is stress. A study conducted at the Institute of Environmental Epidemiology for the Ministry of the Environment in Singapore in 2000, said that "work-related psychosocial stress [is] a significant and independent determinant of these health complaints, and that many symptoms compatible with sick building syndrome in many cases [are] stress-related."

While it is clear that working in an office carries risk as surely as working in any other job, employees should not believe everything they hear in these studies, but take them with a pinch of salt. An apparently serious study was carried out at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota by two US scientists this summer, who invented "treadmill desks". They think walking on a treadmill while working on a computer attached by a frame is a way to tackle obesity. Some might think those two scientists had a little too much time on their hands.

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