Look on the Bright Side: Lighting and Illumination in the Workplace

Lighting and illumination decisions affect everyone in the workplace. Frequently, these choices are made without proper information, which can lead or contribute to job hazards. However, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has a regulation that sets forth minimum lighting and illumination requirements for those working in the construction industry.

OSHA’s lighting and illumination standard for construction (29 CFR 1926.56) ensures specific work areas are lighted at a level adequate for workers to see and avoid hazardous conditions. The minimum lighting requirements are measured in foot-candles.

A foot-candle is the volume of light created by a single candle that falls on a single square foot of surface, no more than a foot away from the candle. Despite OSHA’s use of the term, professionals in the lighting industry consider it outdated.

Also, the standard does not identify how to measure foot-candles or lumens for compliance. However, in 1991, OSHA wrote a letter of interpretation stating the existing illumination level at any work surface within a work site is best measured with a light meter reading in lumens per square foot (equal to foot-candles). While letters of interpretation are not law, this does offer some guidance.

More precise terms, such as lumen and lux, are more commonly accepted and easier to understand. Lumens are the total amount of visible light a given source emits, and a lux is used to measure the amount of light output in a given area. A foot-candle equals one lumen per square foot.

The minimum lighting requirements for various environments in the construction industry are found in Table D-3 of 29 CFR 1926.56 (see above).

The obvious concern is the hazards caused by poor lighting. It can lead to misjudging the position, shape or speed of an object and result in accident or injury. It can impact the quality of work, especially in job roles where precision is required. Additionally, bad lighting can affect your health. Too much or little illumination can strain the eyes and may cause discomfort, irritation or headaches.

Common solutions to insufficient lighting include regularly replacing light bulbs, cleaning light fixtures, adding additional fixtures, modifying the position of light fixtures, and painting walls and ceilings light colors.

Glare is another common problem, and it occurs when a bright light source or reflection interferes with how an object is observed. Usually, the eyes will adjust to the brightest level of light, making it more difficult to see the details in the darker areas of the workspace, even when work areas are sufficiently lighted. Glare can be uncomfortable and annoying, and it can prevent workers from seeing hazardous situations.

There are two types of glare: reflected and direct. Reflected glare is caused by light bouncing off polished, shiny or glossy surfaces; glass on picture frames, or windows at night; and monitors or screens. Direct glare is caused by bright light from poorly positioned light fixtures and sunlight.

Glare can be corrected by using smaller, lower-intensity light fixtures rather than a single, large, high-intensity fixture; using light fixtures that diffuse or concentrate light well; covering bare bulbs, lenses or other devices to control light; increasing the brightness around the source; using adjustable local lighting with brightness controls; and positioning light fixtures to reduce reflected light.

Illumination and lighting levels impact worker satisfaction in addition to safety.

Each employee has their own lighting-level requirements and preferences. For example, some find the warmer white light of tungsten creates a more pleasant environment than that of colder light. Not to mention some employees have better eyesight than others. As a result, when choosing lighting for the workplace, implementing products equipped with manual controls should be considered.

Having a positive impact on worker satisfaction is not only beneficial to the employee but also the employer.

About the Author

Tom O'Connor

Safety Columnist

Tom O'Connor is safety and regulatory affairs manager for Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Reach him at toconnor@intecweb.com.

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