Blog - Keeping well at work; it’s a matter of trust

fixed office desk light coloured wood with decorative metal struts at each endWho can you trust to keep you well? The recent debacle about methamphetamine testing in rental houses having been a waste of time and money – since it has now been deemed not dangerous to those living in a house where it has been consumed – may have left you wondering what information on our health we can actually trust. Where did the whole industry of meth clean ups come from? And why, given that some people lost their homes and many others, a lot of money, as a result of this, wasn’t the validity of these claims checked at a much earlier stage?

Over the years we have been spun all sorts of myths about the dangers – or not – of butter, eggs, bread and various diets. And while all of these can affect our health in various ways, with so much contradictory information out there, how do we really know which way?

It’s a similar story in the world of workplace wellness.

Over the past few years, we have become more aware of the risks to our health as we spend increasing lengths of time at our desks and/or in front of our computer screens. We are also starting to pay attention to ways we might better take care of ourselves, choosing our chairs more carefully than we used to and taking time to set up our monitor at the right eye level. That’s great… after all, making sure people are well set up at work is my passion, but how do we know what is good advice in terms of the right desk set up? Sitting or standing? Is the best chair one which can move in every direction, is it better to have one screen or two? A laptop or desktop? Keyboard or voice activated? And so on…

Within the world of office design space, there is invariably an over-emphasis on appearance rather than functionality. In New Zealand we see a lot of influence from designers (often European, sometimes American) who tend to focus more on the concepts of office design rather than the furniture. They influence us around what the latest trends are, about what the ‘right’ office equipment to buy is from an overall ‘look’ for your workplace perspective, which is somewhat understandable, especially for those businesses where image matters, but what about the ergonomic, economic and functional aspects of this equipment, as well as its safety?

In the same way as the comprehensive (and costly in more ways than one) meth testing of houses was thought to be a ‘safe’ thing to do, with the risks of causing injury or illness to people if there was found to be a high level of meth residue present, (the intentions were good) it’s important to look at what your business is trying to achieve when creating a new work space. Are you buying something that is going to work, not cause injury or illness, and be cost effective?

Large businesses that provide office outfitting services will generally look at your budget, the numbers of people to be catered for, and then look at which desk/s, chair/s, storage furniture and desktop furniture is required for that number. They may not consider the type of tasks which people perform within that space, whether they might be out of range ie. very tall or very small, whether any staff member has particular needs and what staff turnover is like. When you DO look at these factors, it’s clear that there’s a need for flexibility of furniture. Interior designers may also recommend furniture, but similarly, they may not always consider the functionality of a piece of furniture, but rather the look.

Much of the furniture coming out of Europe does not comply with the standards set in New Zealand. So, how do you find out what the recommended standards are? It can be a real challenge to know where to look and be confident if these guidelines are reliable.

As it happens, there are Guidelines for Computer Use which you can get sent out free of charge from ACC. These guidelines were put together in November 2010, updating the previous 1993 and 1998 guidelines set by the Department of Labour. Obviously, computer use has exploded since those first guidelines were set, so the need to update was essential. These are only ‘guidelines’ so are not compulsory, however the great thing about them is that they are totally evidence based, and the evidence is referenced throughout, from international studies and research. This means that you can have confidence in the information being correct there, even if still not as up to date as would be preferable.

Black executive style office chair with fixed arms next to a deskAn example of where these guidelines are helpful when you are buying an office chair is that the recommendations state that an office chair should have height adjustable arms which do not project forwards more than a certain distance so that they don’t block access into the desk. This may look like common sense, but there are still chairs available in the marketplace with non-adjustable arms.

So if you are the person who is charged with organising chairs or other office furniture for your workspace, do some homework, look up the ACC/WorkSafe guidelines, and make sure you are buying furniture which complies with the recommendations. That way, you are safeguarding the health of your people and your business.

If you need any help with deciding what to buy, there are specialists who combine working as a health and safety professional as well as having ergonomic knowledge who can give you guidelines of what to look for and where to go.