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13 ways to prevent common office injuries

Wet floor sign

It's a cliché found on thousands of breakroom posters, but protecting workers from office injuries is every employee's responsibility - and it's a full-time job.

According to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, private employers reported nearly 3 million non-fatal workplace injuries and illnesses in 2012. Most were in service-providing industries, which employ almost 83 percent of American workers. The median number of days missed due to these ailments: 8.

Workplace injuries tend to revolve around trips, slips and falls; fire; germs; and ergonomics. According to the National Safety Council, slips, trips and falls account for more than 8.7 million emergency room visits each year. Many of these, of course, happen on the job. And in 2012, ergonomic injuries made up 34 percent of workplace injury and illness, causing affected employees to miss a median of 12 days of work.

Follow these 13 suggestions for making your workplace a safer place:

  1. Clear the way
    Boxes and equipment in hallways, cords running across heavy traffic corridors, file drawers left open - these are all easily-avoided situations that commonly cause trips and falls in the workplace. Stow equipment and boxes in storage cabinets, and post reminders (printed magnets are helpful) to close doors and drawers after use. Install hooks, cable covers or other mechanisms to keep cords and cables safely out the way. Good lighting can help identify potential obstacles in time to avoid them, so illuminate entrances, stairways, hallways and ramps properly.
  2. Clean up spills
    Many slips and falls occur in breakrooms and bathrooms where spills and drips are common. Provide ample supplies of paper towels and cleaning wipes in these locations, and post custodians' contact information in case of larger spills. Some flooring materials are just plain slippery, so use tread tape or anti-skid paint to provide additional traction. Finally, during rainy or wintry weather, put up safety cones and other notices to help employees and visitors avoid slippery surfaces, and put extra non-slip floor mats in lobbies and reception areas.
  3. Install safety mirrors
    If you've ever run into a co-worker carrying hot coffee rounding a blind corner, you know how painful office collisions can be. Place convex safety mirrors at busy intersections and corners inside, as well as in the parking area, to help employees avoid accidents
  4. Know fire safety laws
    Occupational Safety and Health Agency requirements dictate a fire extinguisher be within 75 feet of each employee. Check with the fire chief about additional code requirements in your community. "The OSHA regulations require the employer to provide training and documentation on the use and function of fire extinguishers," says Ernest Grant, outreach coordinator for the NC Jaycee Burn Center in Chapel Hill, NC. "This is provided so employees will know what to do in the event of a fire, which will reduce panic and confusion."
  5. Check power cords
    Most local fire codes require regular inspection of power cords and the replacement of any that are frayed or otherwise damaged. Additionally, it's good practice to use UL-rated surge protectors and power strips rather than overloading outlets. You can ask your electrician for an audit of cords and outlets.
  6. Make safety training relevant
    "We tend to ignore drills because we rarely, if ever, deal with fires yet we routinely experience a drill that only becomes a perceived disruption in our work day with seemingly little value," says David Wilkie, principal, TeamReadiness®, a Chicago-based knowledge capture and sharing company that documents job-specific knowledge. Try calling it an emergency exit drill and include other safety-related activities, like checking smoke detectors, reviewing fire extinguisher locations and use, and reminding employees of where the emergency and first-aid kits are located.
  7. Avoid blocking sprinklers and exits.
    Don't place anything within 18 inches of a sprinkler head or it may not function properly. Establish and maintain clear escape routes and keep them uncluttered. Never block exit doors or prop open fire doors. In 2011, the last year figures are available, FEMA reports that 85,400 non-residential fires killed 80 people, injured 1,100, and created $2.4 billion in damage.
  8. Wipe surfaces down.
    "Any place that employees tend to gather can be a breeding ground for germs, including copy rooms and breakrooms, so it's important to pay special attention to these areas and to make sure they are regularly cleaned," says Cheryl Luptowski, public information officer for NSF International, a safety organization in Ann Arbor, MI. Door knobs and handles, printers, elevator pads, keyboards and phones deserve daily swabbing, too.
  9. Contain germs
    Encourage sick employees to stay home. They'll recover faster and won't infect co-workers and customers. For those in the office, remind employees to cough or sneeze into a tissue or the corner of their arms - not their bare hands. The used tissues should be disposed of and hands should be washed immediately. Hand washing is also important after handling food and using the bathroom. Keep tissues, antibacterial gels and wipes available throughout the office to encourage employees (and make it easier for them) to practice healthy habits.
  10. Monitor illnesses
    Document employee illnesses, particularly as they pertain to irritations and symptoms only experienced at work. "If you are consistently getting complaints that are similar in nature, chances are you have a problem," says Justin Dixon, president of Snyder Environmental in Little Rock, AR. It could be Sick Building Syndrome (SBS), a condition in which indoor air quality is harmful. An environmental consultant can help you identify the source, which is usually related to mold, building materials or malfunctioning HVAC systems. "The quicker you identify and correct the cause of SBS, the better your employees will feel and perform, and the less liability you will be exposed to."
  11. Protect wrists, arms and shoulders
    Many desk workers are prone to carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive strain injuries affecting the wrist, forearm, hand and shoulders. Ergonomic keyboards and wrist rests can help workers position their arms and hands correctly, and also reduce fatigue. Computer mice should be light, fit easily in the hand and positioned next to the keyboard. Frequent breaks from using computers encourage recovery and blood flow.
  12. Set up workstations appropriately
    "One fully extended arm's length is a good distance from eyes to screen," says Adam Schwartz, a PhD candidate in the Occupational Injury Prevention Research Training Program at the University of Minnesota. "Multiple screens are problematic, as too much neck movement happens." Make sure chairs are adjustable so employees' arms are at a 90-degree angle to the keyboard, the monitor is at eye level and both feet rest comfortably on the floor. Chairs should adjust to provide appropriate lumbar support, or provide back supports when necessary.
  13. Encourage movement
    One of the best ways for employees to avoid ergonomic injuries is to move, especially for those who perform repetitive tasks or maintain the same position for long periods. Treadmill desks are trendy, but low-tech options - like a five minute break every 30 to 60 minutes, short stand-up meetings or a quick lap around the cubicle farm - also work very well at helping to get the blood and oxygen flowing to tired muscles and brains. Adjustable workstations that allow employees to sit and stand are also a great solution.

Quill® Contributing Writer

Margot Carmichael Lester is a business writer who grew up in a family-owned small business. She is the person in charge of emergency preparedness at The Word Factory, a creative enterprise she's owned for 21 years. Her clients include the Los Angeles Business Journal and The Vasculitis Foundation, among other organizations. Follow Margot on LinkedIn.