Safety Matters: Back to the Office

William McCaffrey

William McCaffrey is a Board Certified Safety Professional with over 25 years of construction safety experience. He is Vice President, Environmental Health and Safety for Irex Contracting Group (www.irexcontracting.com) and Chair of NIA's Health and Safety Committee. Mr. McCaffrey has worked for general, mechanical, electrical, and specialty contracting firms in the industrial and commercial construction markets. He can be reached at WMcCaffrey@irexcorp.com.

September 1, 2021

A couple of years ago, I was asked to kick off a staff meeting at our corporate headquarters with a safety moment. I asked the group to vote, by a show of hands, and guess which of our regions they thought had the highest injury and illness rate. One by one, I mentioned each region, and a couple of hands would go up to vote for that region as the one with the most accidents. The last region I listed was our corporate office. Not surprisingly, no hands went up. Everybody was shocked when I told them that, in fact, our corporate office had the highest incident rate of any of our operating regions. It was a bit of a trick question the way I phrased it, since rates are based on the number of hours worked, not just the number of accidents. That year we had a single OSHA-recordable incident in our home office (a laceration requiring stitches). But because we did not work as many hours as the other regions, the incident rate in our corporate office was higher than it was in the field.

This was my lead into a discussion on office safety. Usually, a company’s health and safety efforts are geared toward the hazards on construction sites or factory floors. We often neglect to consider that office workers can face hazards in their workplace, too. As many workers are returning to the office after working at home for more than a year, now is a great time to evaluate your office workspace for potential hazards.

Slips, trips, and falls are the most frequent cause of office injury, according to the National Safety Council. Common culprits include boxes and files improperly stored on the ground, damaged flooring, cords, open files drawers, and unattended spills. It should also go
without saying, but be mindful that office chairs, desks, and other office furniture are not a safe substitute for a step ladder when you need to reach something higher than your reach. We would not tolerate these conditions on a jobsite, so we should not in an office area, either. Take a fresh look at your office area with an eye toward slip, trip, and fall prevention and you are likely to find a few areas that can be improved.

Office environments also contain more fire hazards than most workers realize. The National Fire Protection Association estimates there are more than 3,000 fires per year in office workplaces. Just as in the home, the most common cause of office fires is cooking. Toasters, microwaves, and stovetops can all start fires and should never be left unattended while cooking. Overloaded electrical outlets and damaged electrical cords are other common fire hazards. Space heaters can present a risk as well. Make sure space heaters are not placed too close to combustible materials, and they should be equipped with a shutoff switch in case they get knocked over.

Now is the time to look at basic life safety measures, too. Are all emergency exits unobstructed? Are all fire extinguishers easily accessible? Have they been inspected since employees returned to the office? Also check to make sure sprinkler heads are not blocked. Nothing should be placed or stacked within 18 inches of a sprinkler head that could decrease its effectiveness in a fire.

In addition to correcting any fall hazards and controlling potential fire hazards, now is a good time to look at your workstation setup. Poor layout can cause a range of issues, from neck pain and carpal tunnel syndrome to eye strain and headaches. Talk to your company’s safety manager (or search online for office ergonomics) to see the optimal setup for your office chair, desk, monitor, and lighting. A few easy adjustments can save you a career’s worth of unnecessary aches and pains.

Although office work is generally lower risk, it is not without its hazards. Use this time as workers transition back into the office as a fresh start to reevaluate any potential hazards. Oftentimes, we get so used to our workplace that we overlook potential danger—the stair tread that has always been loose, the top-heavy file cabinet, or the spare office
furniture in front of the emergency exit. Get in the habit of conducting periodic safety inspections in
the office just as we do on the jobsite or the factory floor. Report any problems to your supervisor so
they can be fixed. A safe office is a happier and more productive office. Welcome back.

William McCaffrey is a Board Certified Safety Professional with more than 25 years of construction safety experience. He is Vice President, Environmental Health and Safety for Irex
Contracting Group (www. irexcontracting.com) and Chair of NIA’s Health and Safety Committee. Mr. McCaffrey has worked for general, mechanical, electrical, and specialty contracting firms in the industrial and commercial construction markets. He can be reached at WMcCaffrey@irexcorp.com.