Special Report on Office Automation: Easing the burden on body and mind: Employers are taking steps to guarantee a happy workforce by providing a healthy environment. Emma Daly reports

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The Independent Online
IN THE pursuit of healthy offices (and the avoidance of litigation by employees) companies know they must invest in good equipment, ergonomic audits, better ventilation and lighting, more equipment. But perhaps the most important factor is a happy workforce - and for that bosses need to consider giving employees more control over their tasks.

With the rise in public awareness of RSI (repetitive strain injury) have come rumours that new technology is to blame - 'this never happened when I used a typewriter'. In truth, virtually all modern office furniture should meet the health and safety requirements adopted by the European Community in January; the real problem, according to Joanne Simmons, an ergonomist with System Concepts Ltd, lies in the tasks we perform.

'The design of the whole job is paramount to health and safety,' she says. 'If, for example, as a secretary your job is only to type, there are going to be problems. If you include other small tasks away from the screen, it will help.' She says that in the past, many jobs, such as filing documents, required a secretary to get up and walk to a cabinet. Now most things can be done on screen; and remaining in the same position for hours can strain backs and muscles.

Giving staff more control over how and when they work is important to their health, she says. The freedom to go and get a cup of coffee without receiving dirty looks or questions from supervisors, or to decide which task to do first, is important for two reasons: if staff feel in control and are moving about the office more, they will feel better physically and mentally.

Mental health must be considered. CF Europe Ltd, which audits the safety of office equipment and the working environment, points out, for example, that workers who are not properly trained in new technology are likely to feel anxious at work.

If an employer considers the well- being of staff, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) takes care the office environment. The new health regulations cover areas such as ventilation, lighting, cleanliness, workstations, equipment maintenance, the condition of floors, windows and doors, and the provision of bathroom and canteens. Virtually all offices are covered by the new regulations.

There is a great deal of controversy over reports that VDU monitors can damage users' health. Recent scares have included reports that women working with VDUs are more likely to miscarry, and that screens emit dangerous levels of magnetic radiation. Such theories have yet to be proved, and the word from the HSE is that there is no evidence of any such dangers. 'The only risks are commonplace risks to do with posture, seating and lighting, which are all covered by the new regulations,' an HSE spokesman said.

However, employers who fear that the radiation rumours will catch up with them one day, in the form of litigious workers, can buy from Eizo UK computer screens that lower electromagnetic emissions.

A new emphasis on health and safety at work has come through successful litigation; British Telecom was forced to pay out thousands in compenstion to workers suffering from RSI. A significant legal threat could come from employees complaining of passive smoking at work; for this reason many companies have policies restricting smoking.

The effects of cigarettes can be exacerbated by bad ventilation - in itself the cause of problems, according to Ms Simmons. Most large modern offices have sealed windows and air- conditioning, which needs to be properly installed and maintained, but all too often is not. Some companies erect partitions, others fail to clear blocked air-conditioning systems.

The solution is often to build offices with windows that open, although in large cities the resulting noise and air pollution may be worse than a stuffy office. The HSE marks poor ventilation as a risk factor in 'Sick Building Syndrome' but says that 'extensive research' has failed to establish the syndrome's causes. Its effects include irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, fatigue, headaches and dizziness.

The HSE research also named airborne chemical pollution, high temperatures with low humidity and poor lighting as possible factors. But it warned: 'Any source of stress or general dissatisfaction, whether from the environment, the job or the organisation - while unlikely to be a primary cause of the syndrome - could lead to the reporting of symptoms.'

So it's official: a happy worker is a lot more likely to be a healthy worker.