The Healthy Office

By Winter, Metta | Human Ecology Forum, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

The Healthy Office

Winter, Metta, Human Ecology Forum

Computers take center stage in most office environments today. But little has been done to adjust the physical setting for worker health and safety. Hence, complaints of eyestrain, headaches, wrist injuries, and shoulder, neck, and back pain. Professor Alan Hedge aims to maximize efficiency and create a healthier, and happier, workplace.

Imagine an office full of workers nestled back in their chairs, outstretched legs crossed at the ankles, computer keyboards hung low over their laps.

What's going on here?

The look borders on nonchalance, quite the opposite of the grammar school injunction, "Sit up and pay attention!" How much work could possibly be accomplished when people seem so laid-back?

Plenty, says Alan Hedge, professor of design and environmental analysis and world-renowned expert in ergonomics. For this, his ten years of research have shown, is the posture of productivity.

"People using computers work with their minds, not their bodies," Hedge explains. "This cozy posture is that of the lowest biomechanical strain, the least likely to result in physical injury, and the most likely to motivate workers day by day."

Contrary to popular usage, ergonomics does not just refer to the design of a chair or computer keyboard. Rather, it is the study of how to achieve synchrony between people and their environments to maximize both efficiency and pleasure.

More than forty years old, the field of ergonomics - known in the United States, although nowhere else in the world, as the study of human factors - originated with classified projects for the military and space programs. Today Hedge's research team is bringing the benefits of this science to 55 million American workers by defining those elements that make the office a healthier place to work.

The starting point of Hedge's work is the World Health Organization's definition of what constitutes health. It includes not only the absence of infirmity or disease but also the presence of a positive psychological and social setting. So the study of ergonomics, or human factors, encompasses the design, placement, and use of physical objects as well as that of work content, corporate climate, and managerial style. At the moment, Hedge's research focuses more on the physical elements because these form the foundations for a healthful workplace. And at center stage in the contemporary physical office environment are computers.

Unfortunately, the centrality of computers is not well accounted for by the standards that govern office lighting. Therein lies one of the major health hazards of the modern office - eyestrain.

"About half of all office workers report eyestrain and related problems such as headaches," Hedge notes. "And we know that in many instances those problems result from a mismatch between the computers they're using and the available lighting."

The mismatch occurs because most Americans work in offices where the lighting was designed for reading and writing on a flat surface - that is, the desktop. Today most workers read and write on the vertical surface of a computer screen. Fluorescent lights that shine directly down from the ceiling inevitably produce screen glare. Replacing the opaque plate over the fluorescent tubes with parabolic baffles (those egg crate-like grids fitted below the light tubes) purports to adapt conventional ceiling lights to the use of the computer. Actually, Hedge notes, they make matters worse, transforming a standard fluorescent light into more of a spotlight.

The healthiest type of office lighting, he has found, is called lensed indirect uplighting. The logic behind turning the lights around and shining them up toward the ceiling (hence the name uplighting) came from observing nature, where a sky that is brighter than the ground gives off an even, diffuse illumination. The same effect occurs when fluorescent lights shined toward the ceiling are covered with a lense that diffuses the light, much like the spray nozzle on a garden hose disperses water over a widespread area. …

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