How would you describe your workspace? Cramped and dark, or bright and relaxing? Do you feel fatigued while working at your desk? Consider these tips for creating a healthier workspace!
There are lots of variables that influence your well-being when it comes to your desk and surrounding work area. The top areas of consideration are ventilation, lighting, mold, and electromagnetic fields (EMFs). While the following tips focus on a home office or office building, the principles also apply to schools, and should be aptly applied to buildings where children spend a considerable amount of time.
Tips for a Healthier Workspace
Ventilation or the lack thereof may be one of the biggest contributors to poor health in a work environment. According to the World Health Organization (emphasis added),
Ventilation is intended to remove or dilute pollutants and to control the thermal environment and humidity in buildings. It must be sufficient either to remove pollutants and humidity generated indoors or to dilute their concentrations to acceptable levels for the health and comfort of the occupants and must be sufficient to maintain the building’s integrity.
(Excerpted from the document WHO Guidelines for Indoor Air Quality: Dampness and Mold. The paper is referenced again below.)
Unfortunately, energy efficiency has dominated our construction practices in recent years. This has led to airtight construction with little access to outdoor air. Studies abound on the connection between poor ventilation and health, including a Harvard University study, The Impact of Green Buildings on Cognitive Function. Twenty-four participants were exposed to three types of indoor air quality (related to ventilation) for a total of six full work days.
Air Quality Types
- Conventional: Typical (~500 ppm) volatile organic compound (VOC) levels and 20 cfm outdoor air per person
- Green: VOC levels reduced to approximately 50 ppm and 20 cfm outdoor air per person
- Green with enhanced ventilation: VOC levels reduced to approximately 50 ppm and 40 cfm outdoor air per person
Impact on Cognitive Function
The study has far-reaching implications. Every employer should be aware of this issue. Click on the graphic to see it in full view.
Another key study showed consistent improvement in performance when ventilation rates increased. See the 2006 study Ventilation and Performance in Office Work.
What Can I Do?
If you have access to a window, open it a crack. If you can’t leave it open for extended lengths of time, open it for a few minutes at a time. Monitor your health as it relates to time spent in your office (or home) vs. time spent away. Do you feel better away from the environment? Lack of ventilation, as well as other factors considered below, may play a role.
2. Water Damage
Pay close attention to water leaks or evidence of water damage. Mold is a significant health issue and can adversely impact cognitive function, immune function, and much more. If mold is a problem in an office building, consider pursuing it with the employer. If the issue is at home, consider testing the environment. (See A Beginner’s Guide to Toxic Mold.)
The World Health Organization addresses the issue of ventilation and mold this way:
The presence of many biological agents in the indoor environment is due to dampness and inadequate ventilation. Excess moisture on almost all indoor materials leads to growth of microbes, such as mould, fungi and bacteria, which subsequently emit spores, cells, fragments and volatile organic compounds into indoor air. Moreover, dampness initiates chemical or biological degradation of materials, which also pollutes indoor air.
WHO attributes a myriad of health issues to the presence of water damage in a building, including:
- Respiratory symptoms
- Perturbation of the immunological system
The third category clearly covers a wide range of symptoms and health issues, making mold and its related contaminants a major issue when it comes to the health of an office setting.
What Can I Do?
Pay attention to all water leaks. Explore testing options if you see evidence of water damage. Take all indoor mold seriously. (See A Beginner’s Guide to Toxic Mold.)
The optimal lighting for health is natural light. (See Health Benefits of Natural Light.) Workspaces are best designed around windows with plenty of access to sunlight. Artificial light is best avoided during daytime hours. However, nighttime workers or those in offices without windows must make use of artificial light. Careful attention to lighting types is critical.
Fluorescent lights are least preferred. (Double-encased, full-spectrum CFL bulbs may be an exception.) The mercury inside the bulb emits ultraviolet (UV) radiation when electrically excited. While tube fluorescent bulbs often have diffusers to filter the UV, CFL bulbs do not. This increased UV exposure has been linked to the increasing incidence of skin disorders and skin cancers.
Furthermore, workers may respond negatively to the “flicker” of CFL lights. Fluorescent lamps flash on and off quite rapidly, which may trigger headaches and eye strain. (See more tips on safe lighting in the post Light Bulbs 101.)
What Can I Do?
If you are surrounded by fluorescent lighting, speak to your employer. Let him or her know you may be sensitive to the electromagnetic fields. Is your workspace near a window? Can you rearrange the furniture to give you more exposure to the window? Monitor your health when you are exposed to artificial lighting vs. time spent outdoors.
4. Electromagnetic Radiation
Exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs) is a complex issue—especially in the workplace, where we are often surrounded by other computers, printers, copiers, etc. It is a worthy topic, however, when it comes to evaluating the health of your workspace, as there are many steps you can take to minimize your exposure.
If you’re wondering if EMF exposure is a health issue, I suggest reading the BioIniative Report 2012. It offers compelling evidence that electromagnetic radiation is, in fact, a major health issue of our day. The insurance industry has projected that EMF will be one of the highest risks a decade from now. (See Health Risks of Electromagnetic Radiation.)
The Swedish Trade Union Confederation has taken the lead on the issue of EMF exposure in the workplace by making the following demands in their booklet Cancer and Magnetic Fields at the Workplace. (As noted in Microwave News.) In addition to recommending the practice of the precautionary principle, the trade union suggests:
- Unnecessary exposure be avoided.
- Places of work be designed and equipped in such a way that the exposure to magnetic fields is minimized.
- Purchase of electrical equipment aims to minimize the magnetic fields.
- Manufacturers give details of the levels of magnetic fields in connection with the sale of such equipment.
- Employees be exposed to an average exposure not exceeding 2 mG per working day.
Clearly, we have a long way to go before we exhibit this level of concern in the United States.
We’re making progress, however. The Job Accommodation Network, a service agency for the Dept. of Labor, suggests these accommodations for those who are sensitive.
Nonetheless, we can be proactive when it comes to our EMF exposure in our workspace.
In her book Electromagnetic Fields: A Consumer’s Guide to the Issues and How to Protect Ourselves, author B. Blake Levitt says,
The trick with office equipment is to know what you are working with and to understand how proper positioning of the equipment can help mitigate the risk. VDTs (Video Display Terminals/computer screens) have gotten much of the press coverage over the years, so most people think that their greatest EMF exposure is from computers. In fact, VDTs rank fourth as an EMF source, behind fluorescent lights, copiers, and building wiring.
What Can I Do?
Measure the magnetic fields in your workspace using a simple gauss meter. (A transistor radio tuned away from any station can serve a similar purpose, as seen in the video below.) Determine where the highest exposures are and adjust your workspace accordingly. Other tips include:
1. Eliminate Wi-Fi if possible
If Wi-Fi is a must, check the location of nearby routers. The further you are from a router, the better.
Our home was not wired for Ethernet; however, we found a way around it by purchasing long cables and accepting the inconvenience of cords in hallways and living spaces. (See From Wireless to Wired – Our Family’s Journey.)
2. Use a corded mouse and keyboard
Every little bit helps when it comes to EMF exposure. Switching to wired accessories can make a big difference.
3. Keep your distance
The further you are from your computer screen and office equipment, the better. Magnetic fields decrease with distance. If you have difficulty seeing your computer screen, check out the computer screen magnifiers found here.
4. Use a laptop on battery power
If you keep your laptop connected to an outlet, you will increase your exposure to electromagnetic fields. Keep your laptop on battery power as much as possible. I purchased an outlet shut-off switch for my workspace so I can easily turn power on and off. This switch can be found at Less EMF for $4.95. (Find it here.) You’ll likely need a 3-prong adaptor like this one for $3.59.
I demonstrate some of these suggestions along with RF and LF measurements in the following video.
The best way to reduce your exposure to EMFs in your workspace is to measure your environment. I suggest the Cornet Electrosmog Meter which measures magnetic fields as well as radiofrequency fields. The Cornet meter is available at Just So Natural Products and comes with a Quick User Guide and Video Tutorial. (Find the meter here.)
As seen in the video above, I prefer a standing desk. Wondering if it’s right for you? Check out Is a Standing Desk For You?
Adequate ventilation and lighting, mold avoidance, and EMF mitigation can go a long way toward keeping you safe in your home or office workspace!