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Working Yourself Sick: Five Illnesses Caused by Sitting at Your Desk

With the multitude of news reports about accidents at the workplace (the recent textile factory in Bangladesh, the fertilizer plant in Texas, as well as regular mining accidents and military attacks), we might well conclude that working in an office environment is by far the safest option. Certainly, in comparison, working in an office is considered less risky and life threatening, but office workers should not be complacent. There are several health risks associated with sitting at a desk, and while they might not immediately appear dangerous, they can contribute to illness and a general deterioration in well being. Read on to learn what these dangers are, and how to avoid them.

 

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Repetitive Strain Injury

Sitting at a desk and working on a computer all day requires minimal use of the body. This alone is bad news, but worse still is the fact that the few body parts which are used tend to get overworked. Continuous computer work involving extensive use of the mouse, excessive typing and repeated scrolling and clicking; during this sort of activity, the same few tendons, muscles and nerves are engaged all day long. This overuse can lead to a form of repetitive strain injury (RSI) known as carpal tunnel syndrome which causes pain, swelling and inflammation in the wrists, and tendonitis which causes similar symptoms in the hands and forearms. To avoid these problems and to protect your body from RSI while at the office, there are a number of things to be aware of: check the position and angle of the keyboard on the desk (this should be flat); try to maintain a neutral wrist position when typing (flat and not twisted towards the little finger or thumb); aim to reduce use of the mouse (employ shortcuts as much as possible), or if using a mouse is necessary, use a gel mouse mat for support.

Bad Posture

Office spaces tend to be arranged in a completely unified way, which means desks, computers and seating are exactly the same for all employees. When one considers the variety of different shapes and sizes of employees in any given office, this basic set-up is inappropriate. Therefore, it is most important to adjust your workspace to accommodate your own height and proportions. This means lowering or heightening the office chair so that it provides lower back support, and so your feet can rest flat on the floor (alternatively use a foot rest), and making sure that the desk is at the right height for your body to avoid bending or hunching over it to read, write or type. Additionally, pay attention to the height of your computer screen, which should be at eye level, so that you can sit tall and work comfortably without slouching (if necessary, make the screen higher by balancing it on books). In addition to these sitting arrangements, be aware of your posture while making calls, as this can create neck problems if the phone is rested between your shoulder and ear. Finally, stretch regularly and walk around as much as possible. Even if it’s just to go to the water cooler or the toilet, be sure to move from your position at least once per hour.

Air Conditioners

Air conditioners are essential for indoor comfort in warm climates and seasons, but they are also one of the main reasons why common colds spread so quickly in an office environment. Research indicates that workers who spend their days in air-conditioned offices are more likely to suffer from respiratory infections than those who work in buildings which are naturally ventilated. This is because air conditioners are responsible for circulating air, which often carries airborne bacteria and fungi. In addition, air conditioners actually produce mold, which can be a serious problem for workers who smoke, or who already have respiratory or lung problems like asthma or bronchitis. To reduce these risks, office management should ensure the regular and thorough cleaning of ventilation systems. In addition to breathing and lung problems, cold air also causes muscle and joint problems because it can trigger spasms and pains. Avoid sitting directly underneath air conditioners at work because this can aggravate the problem. Always have additional layers of clothes at work to wrap up in if necessary – and pay special attention to protecting the shoulder and neck area from cold air.

Poor Diet and Dehydration

Research indicates that office workers are more likely to have an unhealthy diet because the office environment lends itself to bad eating habits like skipping meals, eating too quickly, and snacking between meals. All these factors contribute to weight gain, and if combined with limited exercise and movement during the day, can lead to more serious health problems. Doctors advise leaving the office for lunch because a meal eaten away from the desk tends to be more nutritious and filling, as well as better for digestion. Taking a real lunch break is also stress relieving which means workers are less likely to snack later in the day. In addition to bad eating habits, office workers often have bad drinking habits and can easily become dehydrated because they forget to drink water or because they prefer to drink juices which are high in sugar or hot drinks which might contain lots of milk and can have high fat content. Sugary drinks can actually make you more thirsty; especially when combined with the effects of air conditioners, which not only dry the air but can also have a drying effect on your body. To counteract tiredness and headaches associated with dehydration, aim to take a sip of water every ten minutes and to drink one bottle per hour.

Allergies

Office environments can also be the source of allergens, which reside in the office or travel in the air through ventilation systems. Allergy symptoms include irritated eyes, runny noses, sneezing and coughing and can lead to what is known as occupational asthma. Statistics indicate that this form of workplace-specific asthma accounts for ten percent of all asthma cases in the U.S., which means that a lot of people are suffering and getting ill as a result of allergic reactions and long term exposure to workplace triggers like dust, residue from restoration work, cleaning products or other chemicals. Dust can be a big contributor, but fortunately, regular cleaning can reduce office dust. Use a damp cloth to wipe over the computer screen and keyboard every week to prevent a layer of dust developing, and clean between the keys on the keyboard once per month, Where possible, if you have allergies request that office furniture is made from good quality wood or solid metal or glass. Also, avoid fabric chairs as these are known to attract dust mites.

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