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Seeing in a New Light: Ergonomic lighting in the workplace

By Tom O'Connor | Dec 15, 2022
shutterstock / Gorodenkoff
Most people receive the majority of information through their vision.

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Most people receive the majority of information through their vision. As a result, proper lighting makes it easier to conduct work in all settings. Improper lighting can result in eye fatigue, headaches and increased risk of incidents. Implementing ergonomic lighting solutions can minimize these side effects.

“Ergonomics” is often linked to manual lifting techniques and using tools, desks and chairs. However, it applies to lighting too. Unfortunately, according to WorkplaceTesting.com, “It is not uncommon to see an employee working in harsh fluorescent lighting, or in a room that is dimly lit. In fact, various studies suggest that an ergonomically lit workplace improves productivity; while at the same time reduces errors.”

Lighting and productivity

Some experts estimate that proper lighting can increase productivity by 10% and reduce errors by 30%. Ergonomic lighting, free from glare or shadows, minimizes eye fatigue and headaches and increases the visibility of moving machinery, electrical hazards and other dangers, thereby lowering the risk of an accident. 

Ergonomic lighting can also limit “momentary blindness,” which refers to low-field vision due to eyes adjusting from brighter to darker conditions, or vice versa.

Vision in the workplace isn’t solely contingent on lighting. It also includes the time it takes to focus on an object, the size of an object and its brightness and contrast. As you may suspect, objects that are quick-moving, small, bright or have lower contrast are harder to see. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has a construction industry regulation, CFR 1926.58 (a), that establishes minimum lighting requirements for various environments and conditions. It applies to construction areas, ramps, runways, corridors, offices, shops and electrical storage areas. In other environments, OSHA recommends adhering to the American National Standard, A11.1-1965, R1970, for recommended illumination values. However, these standards do not address lighting ergonomics or means to improve or establish optimal illumination in the workplace.

Improvements in lighting don’t always necessitate adding more light, but instead frequently involve adjusting a lighting source—in combination with the presence of natural light—to the optimal positioning. Employers can assess the work site for insufficient light, glare, improper contrast, poorly distributed light and flicker. They should also evaluate lighting relative to task, problematic shadows or reflections, distribution of light, the presence of blinds or curtains on windows, or any worker complaints of eye discomfort.

Physical effects

Eye discomfort may include eye strain, dry eyes, blurred vision, red or pink eyes, burning, light sensitivity, headaches and pain in the shoulders, neck and back. Keep in mind that symptoms may not be caused by poor lighting. Discomfort may occur as a result of looking at computer or tablet screens, improper viewing distances, poor posture, vision problems, dry air, air movement, other environmental factors or a combination of these. Individuals experiencing eye discomfort should see an eye specialist or medical professional, and everyone should have their vision checked every 1 to 2 years.

When these symptoms are caused by poor lighting, they can lead to long-term problems. Prolonged work in an improperly lit environment can result in awkward body positioning. Over time, that can contribute to musculoskeletal disorders. Workers may also experience eye strain when focusing on objects at the same distance and angle for an extended period. Doctors recommend practicing the “20-20-20 rule,” which means taking a 20-second break to look at something 20 feet away at least once every 20 minutes. Eye specialists also recommend frequently “stretching” the eyes to prevent fatigue. This may entail looking away from a screen for a few seconds, looking around, focusing vision on distant objects or blinking multiple times.

What can employers do?

Employers can reduce lighting-related eye discomfort in offices by using filters to diffuse or dim overhead lighting, covering windows with adjustable blinds, and using matte, nonglossy finishes on walls, floors, furniture and tools and equipment. When workers are required to use computers or tablets, ensure they can adjust displays to their preferred setting, use a light color for the background, position the monitor parallel with overhead lights and angle monitors away from lights and windows.

Additionally, employers need to make sure that small objects are magnified and well lit, moving machinery and equipment is painted in a color that contrasts with the background and storage rooms, hallways and stairwells are equipped with adequate light. 

Finally, it’s important to conduct regular maintenance on lighting. This means regularly replacing bulbs and cleaning fixtures, upper walls, ceilings and task stations. All these actions will contribute to ergonomically correct lighting in the workplace.

About The Author

O’CONNOR is safety and regulatory affairs manager for Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm. Reach him at [email protected].

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