Your job can be irritating and annoying, but can it really endanger your health? Yes, says a recent study published in December's American Journal of Epidemiology. The study found that commonly used office items—carbonless (self-copying) paper, photocopiers, and display terminals—can up your risk of health problems like headaches, eye strain, and respiratory symptoms such as wheezing and bronchitis.
"Headaches and eye strain are probably the result of muscular stress and discomfort to the eyes," says study co-author Maritta Jaakkola, M.D., assistant professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University. "We're not sure why self-copying paper and photocopiers sparked an increase in respiratory symptoms; one theory is that workers are allergic to solvents and other chemicals that are either inhaled or absorbed via the fingers into the eyes and skin."
So what can you do to reduce your risk of developing work-related health problems? "Copy machines should not be located in rooms where people work, but in separate areas," says Dr. Jaakkola. If you are experiencing respiratory symptoms and/or have a history of asthma, she recommends either avoiding handling self-copying paper completely or, if that's not possible, using protective rubber gloves.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) suggests reducing your risk of eye strain (otherwise known as computer vision syndrome) by keeping your computer screen a little farther away than you normally read, with the top of your video display terminal placed at or slightly below eye level. If you're got bright overhead office lights, the AAO suggests buying a micromesh computer filter (available at most computer stores) to help reduce reflections and glare. You should also take two five-minute breaks every hour to avoid fatiguing your eyes.
Finally, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommends a simple exercise to help prevent carpal tunnel syndrome (a typing-related overuse injury generally characterized in early stages by numbness or tingling in your hand). Each morning before starting work, extend and stretch both wrists and fingers acutely as if they are in a handstand position. Hold for a count of five, then straighten both wrists and relax fingers. Make a tight first with both hands, then bend both wrists down while keeping the fist. Hold for a count of five. Straighten both wrists and relax fingers for a count of five; repeat exercise 10 times. Now, if only there were a way to avoid that pain in the neck your boss gives you...