Our Offices Are Trying To Kill Us Less Than They Were In 1981

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the 1981 book Office Hazards: How Your Job Can Make You Sick. Basically the book was a terrifying look at how offices were being transformed to make way for new technology and the hazards that ensued as a result.

According to the  author of the book, Joel Makower, office trends that were taking place included buildings being sealed to save energy, windows that couldn’t be open and closed by regular humans, lights that couldn’t be operated by regular humans, interior walls were being knocked down to make room for systems furniture, the cubicle/open office architecture was coming into fashion, synthetic materials such as carpeting, wallcoverings and particleboard furnishings were entering offices and personal computers were on their way.

As a result of these changes Makower wrote in the introduction of the 1981 book:

The nature of the problem is such that the individual hazards in offices are often rather small, seemingly trivial things. Office workers rarely drop dead or lose limbs on the job. An uncomfortable chair does not seem like a major calamity; neither does stuffy air or a few ringing telephones. But put an office worker in a bad chair in a noisy, stuffy office, require that worker to perform a dead-end job for low pay on a video display terminal with a dirty screen made worse by the harsh glare from fluorescent lights, add a dash of pressure — a ruthless supervisor, for example, or economic pressures or family problems — and you’ve got an explosive situation, the stuff from which headaches and heart attacks are made.

Thirty years later office conditions aren’t perfect, but we have made some progress. Air pollution in office buildings (aka sick building syndrome) has been improved through more effective and energy-efficient heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning equipment. Ergonomic furniture has helped reduce pains from sitting in uncomfortable chairs and staring at a computer screen. Some companies even provide tutorials on how to work more comfortably. Some offices now allow regular humans to control the temperature and lighting.

And Makower thinks we will continue to see progress in the work environment as more technological and societal shifts come our way. “Telepresence and telework — not to mention the ability to receive and send email anywhere, 24/7 — are making all of us less dependent on going to offices. And they are giving employees more choice about how, where, and when they work,” wrote Makower.

However he said our progress since 1981 in terms of viewing the people behind the product is still not the focus. “We still see people, furniture, technology, and buildings as separate components, largely independent from the others. We don’t view them as parts of a system that are interdependent — never mind the other components: the nature of the work being performed, the community in which a building exists, etc. And by failing to see offices as systems, we sometimes miss opportunities.”



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