Problems with fluorescent lighting in an office

Written by j.e. myers

With all the emphasis on "greening" the office, debate continues about the potential health hazards and drawbacks of fluorescent lighting in the workplace. Studies by many major organisations, including the Canadian Center for Occupational Safety and Hazards, agree that many office workers are often adversely affected by fluorescent fixtures. Office managers can take steps to address these problems and increase worker comfort.

Is it Safe?

The jury is still out on whether fluorescent lighting directly causes blatant injuries in workers. So far, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) maintains that fluorescent lights do not cause "injuries." But numerous academic and industrial studies nevertheless indicate that fluorescent lighting may cause many other undesirable reactions in workers. A study conducted in 1989 by researchers Wilkins, Nimmo-Smith, Slater and Bedocs showed that fluorescent lights cause headaches and eyestrain in most workers.

Natural Light vs. Fluorescent

The signature "glow" of fluorescent lighting is created by sending an electrical charge through a special gas enclosed within the fluorescent light tube. This glow, which is "cold" compared to the rather "hot" burn of an incandescent bulb, gives off light that often falls into the blue-green end of the spectrum. It is a colour that is very different from the spectrum colour of natural sunlight or incandescent lamps. The problem with this blue spectrum light is that it is so completely unnatural and may likely affect mood in human beings. Exposure to fluorescent lighting over long periods of time has been known to cause depression. The Wilkins-Nimmo study showed that employees exposed to natural sunlight suffered far less depression than employees exposed to fluorescent lights during the work day. The blue nature of fluorescent lighting is also unflattering to human skin tones and other objects, causing a subtle but perceptible problem in human interactions and simple functions like eating during breaks.

The Flicker Effect

Because of their construction, fluorescent light fixtures flicker on and off very rapidly during normal operation. While this flickering is not obvious to most workers it is a modulation that is noted by the brain on a subconscious level. This flickering effect is believed to cause "fluorescent light headaches," tension and even hostility in workers in the same way flickering lights often cause bad reactions in people suffering from epilepsy. The flickering also syncs badly with computer screens causing harmful glare; many IT departments recommend turning off overhead fluorescent lights during heavy computer work or switching to LCD type monitors to avoid flicker sync problems.

The Green Dilemma

While it is true that fluorescent lights are less expensive to operate than incandescent lights and are more environmentally friendly, every office must consider the trade-off between worker comfort and safety and energy savings. One way to "stay green" and make the office better for workers to is care for fluorescent lighting fixtures in a very proactive manner. Change lamps and ballasts more frequently. Waiting until the lamp or ballast completely fails means exposing employees to the flickering effect for even longer periods of time. Use "warmer" fluorescent tubes and, if this is not possible, colour correct fixtures with lighting colour media gels. Provide incandescent "breaks" throughout the office, including the lunch room or conference room.

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