Sick of it all

More and more studies are discovering the risks that are associated with long-term office employment.

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By  Brid-Aine Conway Published  September 23, 2007

Research on health in the workplace is usually the domain of high-risk manual jobs like a construction or factory occupation. Working with heavy machinery or installing windows at 512m on the Burj Dubai carries obvious risks, but being employed in an office all day seems like it should be the safest of modern jobs.

So it is both surprising and sobering to discover that not only does working in an office carry health risks - the office has even invented its own syndromes. Sick Building Syndrome, and seated immobility thromboembolism (SIT), are just of the two health risks associated with the office, and quite often, it is those in IT who are most at risk.

Office workers go three or four hours without getting up from their desks, and some workers sit at their screens for up to 14 hours a day.

Last month research was released from Queensland University of Technology (QUT) claiming laser printers emitted particles which could lodge in and damage lungs. According to their press release: "The tiny particles emitted from some home or office laser printers are as dangerous to human health as inhaling cigarette smoke."

The study tested 62 printers, which included models from Canon, HP and Toshiba among others, and found that 17 of them were "high particle emitters" which were releasing "potentially dangerous levels of tiny toner-like material into the air". Professor Lidia Morawska, who conducted the study, called on governments to regulate the emission levels of printers in the same way that car exhaust and factory emissions are regulated.

But before you edge your chair further away from the office printer, there are a number of limitations in the research. The researchers were unable to fully identify the particles that were being emitted, other than that they were "ultra fine" particles that could penetrate deep into the lungs. They also found more particles were emitted when the toner cartridge was new and when printing graphics and images that need more toner, and this was what caused them to link the particle emission with toner use. The researchers themselves admit that not a lot of research has been conducted in this area, and further research is required to gather more solid information.

"The high standard deviation of the average emission rates estimated in this study also indicates that the particle emission process and the behaviour of individual printers are complex and that they are still far from being completely understood. Many factors, such as printer model, printer age, cartridge model and cartridge age may affect the particle emission process and all of these factors require further study," according to the study.

Whether further research will confirm the office printer as an indoor air pollutant or not, there are health risks associated with office work that are inspiring more and more study. The most obvious fact of office life that is detrimental to health is SIT. Spending an excessive amount of time seated in front of your computer (as almost all IT workers do) can have the same affect as long haul flights - the possibility of deep vein thrombosis. DVT - where a blood clot forms, commonly in the legs, and is carried by the bloodstream to the heart, lungs or brain - could result in chest pain, breathlessness or even death from a heart attack or stroke.

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