Office Automation's Threat to Health and Productivity: A New Management Concern

Article excerpt

Information technology is the wave of the future, and management must be prepared for its good and bad aspects. Offices are flooded with microcomputers, video display terminals, and other technological tools designed to improve productivity. However, these tools are largely products of mass-production methods, which emphasize ease of manufacturing, not the user's health and comfort.(5)

Automation has changed the ecosystem of the office and has brought new levels of stress. This change, unfortunately, has not been matched with a sufficient change in job design and processes. Consequently, computer-related injuries are on the rise; productivity is bound to suffer when the workplace is poorly designed, and workers become bleary-eyed and sore as a result of sitting all day in inappropriate chairs, staring at poorly lit screens.

The lack of human factor considerations in office automation has raised many concerns to management over the potential threats to workers' health and productivity. This paper addresses three of these threats and suggests some guidelines in order to minimize the risk.

Threats to Health and Productivity

Among the new wave threats to the health and productivity of white-collar workers are repetitive stress injuries, radiation-related illnesses, and vision impairments.

Repetitive stress injuries (RSIs). RSIs are among the fastest growing workplace injuries in the U.S. and elsewhere. Australia, for example, had a near epidemic by the mid-1980s that has affected about 3% of its workers, and some experts believe the U.S. already may have as big a problem. According to estimates of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), more than five million people, or 4% of the workforce, suffered from repetitive motion injuries in 1986. These injuries account for about 30% of all worker compensation claims, and this is expected to reach 50% by the year 2000.(9)

Many experts point to the correlation between RSIs and the rise of computer use. RSIs accounted for 18% of all workplace injuries in 1981, the year personal computers were introduced. The percentage rose to 52% in 1989, by which time some 40 million PCs were in use.(2) As a result, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has declared RSIs to be job-related.

Computers have turned what was once the unseen work of the office into discrete keystrokes that can be counted and sped up. Computers store and retrieve data quickly. Users can type faster while having less control over the pace of their work.(4) Word processors pose special problems since they allow workers to type up to 240 characters per minute for hours without a break;(6) and research results suggest that workers who type for more than five hours a day at a computer have 12 times as great risk of developing RSIs as those who spend less time.

Keyboard work is a repetitive motion activity. Office workers who once might have mixed typing with filing, answering phones, and countless other tasks may now simply sit at their computers and type. The letter placement on a standard QWERTY keyboard was originally designed to slow the typist down so that manual typewriters wouldn't jam, but to do this the fingers are forced into awkward positions.(4)

The repetitive motion activity often results in a mismatch between what job demands and what the human mind and body can provide. This mismatch can create psychological and physical stress. The negative psychological stress, i.e., a burdensome job or lack of autonomy, can result in anxiety, loss of concentration, irritability, and even psychological disorders. The negative physical stress, caused by improper use of a muscle or muscle group, results in fatigue and strain.(2) The worker's vulnerability to RSIs is expected to increase as the stress level increases.

The wrist, arm, and hand pain caused by carpal tunnel syndrome is a form of RSI, which is also known as a repetitive motion injury (RMI). …