My State:
August 03, 2012
They may not wear hardhats ...

… but service and office workers also face risk!

Reducing hazards related to manufacturing, operations, and construction probably takes up most of your time and resources. However, you were hired to protect all workers, including those in administrative and service jobs. Their safety and health is the subject of this Compliance Report.

We talked to safety professionals with programs designed to make sure people who sit, talk, and type for a living avoid injuries and discomfort. If you thought their biggest risk was paper cuts, keep reading.


Because the office is not the most hazardous part of your operation, it may not be a priority for you or your workers. As a result, minor hazards go undetected. Small problems can become costly injuries.

The North Carolina Department of Labor’s Guide to Office Safety and Health confirms that falling is the most common office accident. Falls account for the highest number of disabling injuries and the highest percentage of lost workdays due to such injuries.

People fall while getting into and up from chairs, leaning back and tilting the chair, standing on chairs, and putting their feet up on the desk.

Other culprits are poor housekeeping, wet surfaces, improperly placed cords, obstructed walkways, open file drawers, and stairs.

Ergonomic risks are prevalent. Employees suffer stiffness and lack of blood flow from too much sitting.

Head and neck strains result from improper desk/computer setup.

Cradling the phone between the head and shoulder can lead to discomfort, even after you’ve switched to a headset.

Overexertion injuries come from moving or lifting heavy objects like furniture, books, equipment, and supplies. Poor lighting can be a strain on the eyes.

Office workers are struck by or run into doors, desks, carts, and other objects.

Faulty electrical appliances and extension cords can result in shock or fire.

Poor air quality, bad ventilation, and off gassing from carpets and other sources can lead to mild eye irritation and dizziness or more serious illnesses.

A sedentary lifestyle carries its own health challenges.


If you’re holding a valid U.S. passport, there’s a good chance it was processed at the National Passport Center (NPC) in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. An agency of the U.S. State Department, the center employs about 800 people—half State Department employees and half contractors.

Customer service manager Susanne Delaney started her career at the NPC in operations and was active in building the site’s exemplary safety and health program. She helped lead the effort that resulted in a VPP Star designation in early 2011.

Delaney describes the facility as a high-production workplace where employees on two shifts process (“adjudicate”) about 5 million passports each year. They determine if the applicants are who they say, review the submitted material, run checks, manage a large volume of mail, and shepherd the passports through the process.

According to Delaney, most of the risks to employees come from rushing to accomplish the large volume of work, including rushing up and down the stairs of the 4-floor building.

“Slips, trips, and falls are among our top risks,” she says. “They can happen anywhere, including in the stairwell and in the parking lot when people text or talk while walking.”

Right from the start

The NPC is strongly supported by the State Department’s internal safety and health organization, known as facility management services (FMS). The day we spoke, Delaney was awaiting the arrival of an FMS specialist to conduct ergonomic training for second-shift workers.

FMS trainers instruct employees at the Portsmouth site who in turn offer ergonomic support to coworkers. “They provide hands-on training so our staff knows how to set up their desk, computer, and keyboard,” says Delaney.

Often getting it right is about the simple things, like proper monitor height and ideal placement of the keyboard to ensure a neutral posture.

Following the initial setup, NPC employees can request an additional ergonomic assessment if they’re experiencing discomfort or if something isn’t quite right.

A good ergonomic workstation is even more valuable if employees use proper body mechanics and stretch. “You can’t make people stretch throughout the day, but it’s an important tool,” Delaney acknowledges.

She came up with the idea of posting stretching instructions and diagrams inside the “batch boxes.” These are specially numbered cardboard boxes used to hold batches of passports as they pass through the various stations at the facility.

The colorful messages and graphics are attached to the inside of the boxes, which makes them easily seen by workers as they handle the passports. A new set of stretches is introduced every 4 to 6 months. Delaney says this simple idea has generated positive attention and response.

Focus on wellness

In 2009, Delaney and others at the NPC had decided to take steps to improve employee health and wellness. When a VPP team visited the site, they encouraged that initiative.

The Center has been supported in the effort by an active wellness committee. Its mission statement reads, “To raise awareness about health and wellness issues and the benefits of incorporating wellness into all employees’ lifestyles, both at work and at home.”

The goal is to implement programs that will affect employee success by reducing personal healthcare costs, increasing productivity, decreasing absenteeism, and contributing to a positive workplace culture.

The centerpiece of the program is a wellness fair, which has become a popular annual event. Employees are encouraged to attend during work hours to learn about wellness and assess their own health status. Outside experts share information on smoking cessation, parenting, yoga, exercise, nutrition, and other wellness topics.

The focus on health is also behind popular offerings like an indoor walking program, fitness boot camp, running club, and Zumba® fitness dance classes. “We were also able to convince one of our vendors to install a healthy snack machine. It’s amazing how quickly people took to that,” says Delaney.


Unum is a large disability insurer serving customers in the United States, United Kingdom, and Ireland. Chuck Spencer is a corporate safety manager charged with protecting the 10,000 people who work at Unum’s Portland, Maine, headquarters. A second site is located in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

“As safety professionals we are so fortunate that safety starts from the top here. We have the full support of management to make sure our employees are safe.” Spencer says anything less results in reduced productivity and a negative impact on the business.

The workforce includes underwriters, customer service specialists, nurses, and doctors who review cases, and a large number of administrative and support personnel.

“Our biggest risk is repetitive motion injuries,” says Spencer. “Fortunately, in Maine it’s mandated that you provide visual display terminal training to employees who spend more than 4 hours a day on their computers.”

Within a month of starting work, every new employee sits down with an ergonomic specialist for a complete ergonomic assessment. “We build the workstation around them with a proper seat and work surface that includes any assistive technology they might need including various types of keyboards and ‘mice.’” Spencer says a physician or physical therapist may get involved if medical accommodations are required.

Standing up for themselves

Providing the right equipment isn’t enough—the real value comes when employees alter their habits and behaviors. Unum is making that easier by providing employees with sit-stand desks. These adjustable workstations encourage workers to move around as they work rather than remain in a static seated posture.

“There’s an electronic work surface on a base, and the whole surface raises or lowers very easily.” A digital display is preset to the height of an individual worker. With a push of a button, the setup goes from standing to sitting mode. “Another advantage is that it accommodates women who 1 day may be wearing heels and the next day flats,” Spencer adds.

Workers who choose to stand are provided with a two-step stool. Placing a foot on the stool can relieve the potential discomfort of standing for a long period. Sitting versus standing is a personal choice, but Spencer believes the more time workers spend on their feet, the more stamina they will develop.

The Unum safety program is enhanced by strong employee involvement. Workers are encouraged to speak up about unsafe conditions and report them via a help line. Employees eagerly serve on safety teams; duties include conducting a quarterly safety audit of their work area.

Another popular way to get involved is by serving on the site’s medical first responder team. When a call comes into the security office, the first call is to 911. Security officers then contact employee first responders by phone and text message.

Team members are trained in general first aid, CPR, and handling bloodborne pathogens. The facility is equipped with automatic external defibrillators.

“They’re a great group of volunteers,” says Spencer. While some have a background in emergency response or nursing, others are simply interested in helping. All team members receive special training in how to stabilize individuals until professional help arrives on scene.


Last fall, United Airlines’ (UA) Detroit Customer Contact Center (DTWCC) was named a Star VPP worksite by Michigan OSHA. It was the first VPP certification for UA.

Kerry Fischman, senior staff specialist for corporate ground safety, says the strategies to protect employees are similar to those the airline uses to safeguard other workers, including those with more traditional risks.

“Our approach to safety is the same throughout customer service and operations. The goal is to minimize any chance for injury to occur,” he explains. DTWCC is one of five U.S. reservation facilities. Approximately 500 workers at the Detroit location take phone reservations and provide 24/7 customer service.

According to Fischman, companywide programs help ensure a culture of safety across the airline, which include:

  • An effective employee safety committee
  • Encouraging employees to apply safety knowledge and practices at work and at home
  • Involvement by senior leaders
  • Ergonomic and basic safety training for all employees
  • Job safety analysis training for leadership and safety committee members
  • An internal safety recognition program
  • A growing wellness program with on-site clinics, wellness challenges, weight loss programs, health screenings, and employee coaching
  • Thorough investigation of all incidents and near misses

Taking it higher

The Detroit service center goes beyond corporate initiatives in a number of ways. For example, OSHA 10- and 30-hour training courses have been adapted for use at the facility, an unusual step for a service-based operation.

Ongoing safety communication helps spread the word. A huge safety billboard is used to share relevant information—from safety tips to news about upcoming inspections and the minutes of safety meetings.

DTWCC employees are encouraged to get up from their seats and take regular breaks. They can take calls from a sitting or standing position. Every effort is made to ensure that workstations are suited to the individual employee.

The site’s entry into Michigan’s Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) has been a source of pride for employees of the center. It also spurred UA to set a goal of VPP participation by every customer service location.

Adds Fischman, “Our focus in terms of office and administrative risk is a holistic approach: identify risks, find root causes, investigate all incidents and near misses, and prevent similar incidents in the future.”

A wise investment

Employees respond positively when employers anticipate and respond to their needs. That’s as true for service and office employees as for those on the front lines of manufacturing and construction.

Take steps to ensure that your workers get everything they need to stay safe and well. This includes a comfortable, adjustable workstation, fresh air and good ventilation, access to good food and exercise, opportunities to participate, effective training, and knowledge about what to do in an emergency.

It’s a familiar formula for safety professionals. Find out (with their help) what risks your employees are facing, and then build the programs to eliminate or reduce them. From frayed electrical cords to falls from ladders, and sedentary work, it’s your job to make their jobs safer.

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