Environmental factors such as air quality and lighting are often overlooked when employers address the ergonomics in an office. MARISKA MORRIS investigates their importance

When ergonomics is mentioned, employers often think about whether the office chairs are comfortable, or whether a computer screen is within an employee’s line of vision. However, ergonomics includes a lot more than just these basic elements. The physical environment in which an employee works can have a huge impact on their productivity.

In mining or construction, the physical environmental factors are easy to isolate and correct. If an employee working in a mine doesn’t have adequate lighting, they won’t be able to see or tend to their work.

In the construction industry, employees need to be provided with masks if there is a lot of dust or other particles in the atmosphere. It is obvious if this is an issue as the employee will cough.

The office is often considered safe and these environmental factors become harder to pinpoint, or they are overlooked completely. However, things such as the air quality and adequate lighting can greatly impact on the performance of employees in an office.

“A study conducted by the American Society of Interior Design indicated that 68 percent of employees complain about the lighting situation in their offices,” says business productivity and efficiency consultant Andrew Jensen.

“The fact that such a substantial number of employees disliked the lighting in their offices enough to complain about it implies that many employers could be making the same mistakes. The two most common scenarios for poor office lighting are those that are too dim or too harsh.”

Dim lighting can result in strain on the eyes, cause headaches, drowsiness and result in a lack of focus. Harsh lighting – especially florescent lighting – can trigger migraines, cause strain on the eyes and distract an employee.

“The best alternative to harsh and dim lighting systems is natural light. In a study, it was shown that windows were the number one determinant of the occupants’ level of satisfaction with a building,” Jensen recommends.

Natural light assists in providing softer lighting, but can also impact an employee’s well-being. “Where natural lighting has been provided, this has shown to result in happier workers, less absenteeism and fewer illnesses. Because better lighting encourages satisfaction among workers, it also results in increased productivity,” Jensen explains.

In addition to the quality of light, it is also important to consider where the lights are positioned in the workplace. Employers are advised to keep the lighting on an employee’s desk to a minimum and rather focus on placing strategic overhead lighting to minimise the glare on the computer screen or monitor.

How the computer screen is positioned in relation to a window is also important, as natural light can also cause glare on a computer screen. Avoid flashing lights and chose a neutral colour lighting to reduce strain on the eyes. If it is not possible to have natural lighting in the office, employees should be encouraged to spend 15 minutes a day outside in the natural light.

Dr Pragya Agarwal, in an article for Forbes, writes: “Often just 13 to 15 minutes of exposure to natural light is enough to trigger the release of endorphins or ‘happy hormones’.”

Air quality is just as important as lighting. Chris Stokel-Walker, in an article for the BBC, writes: “According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), air pollution indoors is often between two and five times greater than outdoors – and can get at its extreme up to 100-times worse than the open air.”

Simply opening a window when the office gets stuffy is not enough to ensure adequate air quality in the office. Opening a window could result in pollution and noise from outside entering the office and causing potentially even more distractions.

While air-conditioning does offer numerous advantages, it only really benefits a company if the filters are cleaned on a regular basis. Stokel-Walker comments: “Having air-conditioning doesn’t help unless the system includes proper filters, as the outdoor air – potentially filled with pollutants – is sucked indoors and circulated around the office.”

“An estimated 800 000 people die every year due to poor air quality in their workplace,” Stokel-Walker adds, noting that air quality can cause sick-building syndrome, headaches and lead to a loss of productivity.

The correct approach to ensuring air quality indoors is installing air-filtration systems, such as those supplied by Airlabs, which remove 95 percent of air pollution and harmful gasses. If an air-filtration system is not an option, companies should consider regularly cleaning the filters of the air-conditioning system in the office.

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