In the whirl of our Monday-to-Friday schedules, few of us have time to consider how the air or noise in our workplace might affect our health. And those are just the obvious hazards. Our working lives also affect how we eat, how much we move during the day, and how stressed we feel — all things that can lead to health problems over time.
Fortunately, many employers are paying more attention to workplace health and wellness because a healthy environment benefits everyone by lowering health care costs and boosting productivity and engagement.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has just released an updated Worksite Health ScoreCard, and a test program is underway help employers to figure out how well their workplaces are doing. In the meantime, here’s a look at ways you and your employer can create a better workplace.
We spend most of our work days indoors, so the air quality can have a big effect on our health. Damp buildings can breed bacteria and mold, while carpets and sofas can harbor dust mites. These can trigger or worsen asthma and other problems.
While most of us can’t control the air inside our workplace, here are a few things to watch for:
- Keep the air flowing. Stale office air can affect your focus and attention. To keep air flowing freely, don’t block air vents, and open windows for fresh air when possible.
- Minimize mold and mildew growth. According to Rachel Bailey, a medical officer in the respiratory health division of the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH), damp materials need to be dried or removed within 48 hours. Likewise, report any mold growth immediately, take out trash often, and store food properly.
- Clean often. Keep floors and surfaces uncluttered to allow for easy, thorough cleaning. Ask if vacuums have HEPA filters so they don’t blow fine dust particles right back into the air.
- Skip perfumes and irritants. Sprays and other scented products don’t purify the air, and they can mask problem odors. Plus, chemical fragrances have volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and phthalates, which are potentially harmful.,
- Don’t rely on plants. Plants can spruce up your cubicle space, but it’s unclear how well they can improve air quality. So far, proper ventilation seems to play a bigger role.
Some 22 million US employees are exposed to harmful noise levels on the job. Besides causing stress and raising blood pressure, a recent study found that living in noisy neighborhoods is linked to slightly higher rates of stroke as well.
At 90 decibels — similar to the sound of a passing motorcycle — employers are required to provide protective equipment. If you need to raise your voice to talk to someone just an arm’s length away, chances are it’s too loud, says William Murphy, coordinator of the hearing loss prevention program at NIOSH. Here’s what you can do:
- Minimize noise in the office. In offices, employers can lower risk of hearing damage with carpets and acoustic ceiling tiles to absorb noise, double-paned window glass to block outdoor noise, and noise-reducing partitions.
- Turn down the music. Talking on the phone or listening to music on earbuds at high volumes can be damaging, too. Check your volume levels, and use ear protection for relief from loud background noise instead of music.
- Wear protective equipment. If your workplace provides earmuffs or earplugs, wear them regularly. If not, ask for some. You can also buy protective equipment at your local hardware store. Murphy’s research has found that people are better protected with earmuffs that cover the ear than earplugs.
Besides increasing the risk of obesity, heart disease, and other chronic conditions, a 2012 study found that unhealthy eating habits raised the risk of lost productivity by 66 percent. Here are a few tips for eating well at work:
- Don’t skip breakfast. Besides fueling your brain in the morning, it’ll keep you from getting too hungry by lunchtime — and overeating.
- Lunch. Bring your own when you can, so you’re less likely to go out for burgers and pizza. For the days you eat out, put together a go-to list of restaurants with healthy menus.
- Snack smart. If healthy options are scarce at work, try bringing low-calorie snacks that keep you satisfied longer, like almonds, whole wheat bread, cottage cheese, popcorn, and fresh fruit and veggies.
Some 3 million workplace illnesses and injuries were reported in 2014 (the most recent data). Over half involved time off from work, or a job restriction or transfer. While different jobs and workplaces will have different challenges, you can start with these general tips.
If you work at a desk
Poor ergonomics can lead to neck strain, carpal tunnel syndrome (a type of wrist injury), and a host of other problems. Set up your workstation to maximize productivity and comfort. Here’s how:
- Use a good chair. You should be able to adjust the back and arm rests, as well as the seat height and tilt. Adjust the armrests so your elbows are close to your sides, bent at a roughly 90 degree angle. Your feet should rest flat on the floor or on a footrest. Use a lumbar pillow for added lower back support.
- Sit straight. Your ears, shoulders, and hips should be in a vertical line. To minimize twisting and reaching, place your keyboard and monitor directly ahead, and keep any other items you use often within easy reach.
- Stop sitting so much. Sitting for hours on end can result in everything from weight gain to increased diabetes and cancer risk. Remember to take breaks — stand up and move around every 20 to 30 minutes, or consider a standing desk. (Check out our infographic on the hazards of sitting.)
- Relax your eyes. Staring into a screen for long periods of time can cause computer vision syndrome, marked by dry or strained eyes, headaches, and shoulder and neck pain. Follow the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, drop your work for 20 seconds to focus on something 20 feet away. Learn more about how screen time can affect your health, and ways to break free of your devices.
If you work in a factory or warehouse or in construction
- Take frequent breaks. Staying in one position or repeating motions are common sources of workplace injury. Take regular breaks if you can, getting up and walking around every 20 to 30 minutes.
- Practice safe lifting. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, squat only at your hips and knees, and keep your back upright. Grip the load close to your body and take small steps, leading with your hips to maneuver.
- Don’t push yourself. Whether it’s lifting, pulling, or throwing, don’t stretch yourself beyond your limits. Team up with a coworker, or use devices for help.
- Keep it tidy. Keep your space free of clutter to prevent falls. Floors should have nonslip mats or coatings. Wear shoes with enough traction.
- Protect yourself. If you work near machinery on in construction, wear protective equipment like helmets and hard-toed shoes to protect yourself from falls or sharp objects. Arrange objects so they don’t fall or slide off edges. Don’t work under heavy machinery while it’s in operation.
How to be more involved
Ideally, employers and workers should be partners because a healthy environment benefits everyone. Heidi Hudson, coordinator for research translation and communication in NIOSH’s Total Worker Health Program notes that employees “have a stronger voice if they’re able to work with their employer.” Here are some tips:
- Make suggestions. If there’s too much junk food on offer, suggest some other options. If you’d like to promote walking breaks or yoga classes, bring it up with the right people.
- Point out concerns. “Employees have a right to raise safety and health concerns without fear of safety or reprisal,” says James Wulff, Deputy Regional Administrator in San Francisco for the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). You might do this through a suggestion or comment box, HR department, or union.
- Know your rights. OSHA requires employers to display a poster telling workers about health and safety rights and requirements. You can also learn more at the OSHA website.
Editor: Deepi Brar
Melissa Pandika is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), US Department of Labor
US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). An Office Building Occupant’s Guide to Indoor Air Quality. EPA website.
American Optometric Association (AOA). Computer Vision Syndrome. AOA website.
Wilson, Tanya. “6 Noise Protection Tips for Workers.” EHS Today.