Fact Sheet

Effective Design of Office Space

The layout of an office is a crucial element in overall safety. Central to layout is ease of navigation around the office and ease with which staff and volunteers can complete tasks in a setting where desks, chairs, computer stations, electronic equipment and file cabinets are placed in a way that avoids overcrowding. The office layout should be efficient, yet suitably comfortable so that staff can concentrate on work.

The most common safety hazards associated with office design are falls, noise, inadequate pathways, and placement of furniture/equipment.

Falls

A fall occurs when a person loses his/her balance and footing. Once of the most common causes of office falls is tripping over an open desk or file drawer. Bending while seated in an unstable chair, and tripping over electrical cords or wires are other common hazards. Office falls are frequently caused by using a chair or stack of boxes in place of a ladder and by slipping on wet floors. Loose carpeting, objects stored in halls or walkways, and inadequate lighting are other hazards that invite accidental falls. Fortunately, all of these fall hazards are preventable.

Noise

Noise can be defined very simply as unwanted sound. Office workers are subjected to many noise sources including video display terminals;, high-speed printers; telephones; fax machines; human voices; and outside traffic, vendors, street musicians, and protesters with bullhorns. Noise can produce tension and stress, as well as damage to hearing at high noise levels. For noise levels in offices, the most common effects are interference with speech communication, annoyance, and distraction from mental activities, as well as tension headaches, clenching and grinding of teeth, and neck and shoulder muscle strain. The annoying effect of noise can decrease performance or increase errors. If tasks require a great deal of mental concentration, noise can be detrimental to performance. Additionally, excessive noise can prevent staff, volunteers and other from hearing emergency warnings, such as fire alarms or sirens, or cries for help.

Government standards have set limits for exposure to noise to prevent hearing loss in employees. The level of noise one can safely be exposed to depends on the intensity of the noise and its duration of exposure. Problems could arise in areas with a high concentration of noisy machines, such as high-speed printers or photocopying machines.

Halls and Pathways

Hallways should be kept free from furnishings, storage compartments, and/or any unnecessary equipment. The halls and pathways should be positioned where people naturally walk. “Shortcuts” from one section of the office to another should be recognized as possible new pathways. Cutting through office spaces that are not considered pathways can be hazardous because of the potential for trips and falls.

Placement of furniture/equipment

Office furniture and equipment should be placed so that employees can conduct tasks without having to stretch, strain or reach. The setup of every workstation should be customized to fit the ergonomic needs of the user. File cabinets should be located in areas which are not normally a footpath. Care should also be taken to avoid the placement of furnishings to avoid the following types of injuries:

Employees need to be conditioned to pay attention to where they are walking at all times, to store materials properly in their work areas, and to never carry objects that prevent them from seeing ahead.

Recommendations

Walk around the entity’s office and observe the placement of furnishings and equipment.

There should be a reception area at the entrance of the office where the receptionist can have an unimpeded view of the door, parking lot and, if possible, the doors to the restrooms. If there is no receptionist, this job should be assigned to the person whose workstation is across from the entrance.

The office should be evaluated for compliance with Americans with Disabilities requirements for hallways and other thoroughfares, desk and furniture arrangements, and other relevant design areas.

The office should have a break room where people can congregate and chat and not disturb people who are working.

Staff members who are allowed to listen to music or the radio should be required to wear headphones or keep the sound low. And they should understand that the privilege of listening to these diversions while they work is contingent on complying when a co-worker or supervisor asks them to turn down the sound.

If possible, create a sound-insulated, temperature-controlled workroom to house printers, photocopiers, fax and postage machines, and other noise-producing equipment away from other workstations.

Resources

Effective Design of Office Space Checklist

Workplace Safety and Health, CDC