Allison Hutton

Employee Health and Safety: Hidden Office Hazards

Business owners have a great deal of responsibility when it comes to the health and safety of their workers. From ergonomic injuries to overexertion and the performance of dangerous tasks, the workplace can be full of hazards. Business owners must not only identify potential office hazards but also remediate them as completely as possible.

Yet while we tend to think of office hazards in terms of the physical dangers mentioned above, there are other hazards in the workplace that may often go undetected but that have the potential to cause serious health issues for those working near or around them. Here’s an overview of some of these pernicious but invisible office hazards.

Asbestos

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous material. Because it was found to be both durable and fire-resistant, its use became widespread in many industries and sectors prior to the 1980s. Exposure to asbestos can result in mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis, according to Asbestos.com. More than 75 occupational groups face potential exposure to asbestos — though many affected groups were directly involved in maintaining, remediating, repairing or remodeling structures that contain the material.

While asbestos can be harmful when inhaled or through long-term exposure, it’s generally considered safe when not disturbed. If your office space is located in an older building, be mindful of potential exposure during renovations, construction, plumbing or duct work and maintenance. The owner of the building should see to an investigation of the building materials prior to any of the above beginning. If there are concerns among employees about asbestos exposure, look to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration or National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health for additional materials and guidelines.

Mold

According to EHS Today, mold is present in all buildings in one form or another. While not all molds are considered toxic, certain types in high quantities certainly can be. Mold needs both water and moisture to grow — but that doesn’t necessarily mean there has to be a constant source of either in order for it to become a problem. Common building issues that can contribute to mold problems include:

  • Poor building maintenance
  • Plumbing mistakes
  • Leaks in pipes, windows or around doors
  • High humidity or condensation issues

There are many symptoms associated with mold exposure. Look especially for:

  • Irritation of the throat, nose or eyes
  • Respiratory issues
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea

If you find that employees are reporting these or similar physical symptoms, take action immediately. If the office is a rented space, notify the owner or landlord right away and request an investigation into the matter.

Radon

Many employers don’t consider radon to be a hidden hazard in the workplace, but it’s more common — and dangerous — than you’d think. Radon is a tasteless, odorless and colorless radioactive gas. Associated with lung cancer, radon is released when uranium and thorium decay. These compounds are found naturally in rocks, soil and water. During the decaying process the elements emit particles that are extremely dangerous for the tissues in the lungs. Factors that can increase exposure to this carcinogen include:

  • The soil and matter beneath the workplace
  • The building materials used in construction of the structure
  • The construction and makeup of the ventilation system

Testing is the only way to determine radon levels in your workplace. Because those exposed to radon exhibit no immediate symptoms — it can take years for issues to surface — it’s important to proactively test for radon.

In many cases, increased ventilation is all that’s required to reduce the amount of radon in the air. There are situations, however, where remediation methods must be implemented. But again, there’s no way of knowing this until the levels are tested. Contact the building owner or an expert to conduct an air-quality test in your building.

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Sick Building Syndrome

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, there has been an increase in job-related breathing disorders and allergies. The root cause of this spike? Inadequate air quality in the workplace, a condition sometimes known as sick building syndrome. Some of the factors that can contribute to poor office air quality include:

  • The use of pesticides and cleaning chemicals in the work environment
  • Poor ventilation systems
  • Poor airflow to work areas or cubicles
  • Overcrowding of office spaces
  • Inadequate housekeeping

To prevent and remediate the causes of sick building syndrome, establish routine preventive maintenance guidelines and regular housekeeping practices. Among the most important aspects of building a healthier environment are:

  • Regular cleaning or changing of air filters
  • Vacuuming carpets to avoid dust and allergen buildup
  • Dusting and disinfecting flat surfaces and furniture
  • Keeping common areas like restrooms and kitchens clean, disinfected and free of open food sources

Bringing employees into the process of identifying and remediating these hidden office hazards can help employers keep potential hazards under control. From there, don’t hesitate to call in a professional as soon as a potential issue has been identified.

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