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Beyaz Bilgisayar Danışmanlık Hizmetleri Ltd. Şti.

The occupational health hazards of information professionals

Bekir Kemal Ataman & Nejla Ataman.

Marmara University, Istanbul, Turkey.

Main Points:

The occupational health hazards of information professionals can be listed under four main headings:
Chest infections and respiratory system allergies;
Dermatological inflamations and skin allergies;
Orthopaedic and muscular disorders and
Psychological disorders.
Almost all of the occupational diseases listed can be avoided by
A suitable design of the building and the environmental ambience;
Proper maintenance and care of the building and its contents and
Good working practices.
What the word "archive" conjures in the minds of many people most of the times are heaps of paper covered with an inch of dust in remote stacks located somewhere in the damp basement of a building. The general impression is that these places, without exception, are extremely humid, full of vermin and insects and deprived of any sunlight. Unfortunately, these impressions in many cases actually reflect the truth. Observations carried out in Turkey in mid-nineties showed that together with the general lack of importance given to the management of records and maintenance of archives went a total disregard for the health and welfare of the archivist. The librarians might be slightly better off, but in many cases the observations made for archivists applies to librarians, too. This article was written in Turkish in 1995 [1] to address some of these problems. As little has been written on this matter since then we thought that an English version of this article might be of interest.
However, as will be proposed throughout this article, most of the diseases to be listed can be prevented by maintaining high standards of archives or library service. Thus before accusing the authorities we work for, we should start by criticizing ourselves first. We are obliged to raise our professional standards both for our personal health care and for the quality of our service, as well as from a professional ethics point of view. If we appraise our profession and keep the quality and the standard of our service high, the value our administrators will be attributing to our profession in turn will, it is to be hoped, improve. Otherwise we are destined to work in, achieve the respect and be assigned salaries at the same basement level in which the records of the popular imagination are kept.
Unfortunately literature on this topic is virtually non-existent, except for a Master’s Research Paper which refers to a few of the diseases we will be listing here. So, we decided it was time we should translate this article into English for an international audience since the issues referred to are still valid even after a decade.
We will be listing the occupational diseases of archivists and librarians under four main headings: 1. Chest infections and allergic disorders of the respiratory system; 2. Dermotological inflamations and skin allergies; 3. Orthopaedic and muscular disorders and 4. Psychological disorders. Under each heading we will be listing the probable disease, followed by a short description of the disease in question and its symptoms. For each of these headings, we will then list the structural measures relating to the buildings and the environment we work in that need to be taken to prevent these health problems, followed by general measures relating to our work that need to be taken during the daily course of performing our profession.

Tuberculosis: A contagious infection affecting mainly the lungs that can become fatal if not cured. It is seen more common in people who work in damp environments which does not get sunlight. Symptoms: non-productive cough, blood in sputum, fatigue, loss of appetite, night sweats, prolonged low fewer.
Bronchial asthma: A type of dyspnea seen more often in people working in damp and dusty environments. Breathing is generally wheezy.
Bronchitis: An infectious disease of the lungs. Symptoms: Strong cough, sputum and high fewer.
Pneumoconiosis: The general name given to the type of damage formed as a result of dust and similar particles, coming from the external environment, and entering the lungs through respiration. Symptoms: Various depending on the type of pneumoconiosis. Generally takes the form of dyspnea, cough, fatigue, loss of weight.
Allergies: Respiratory system disorders created by mites, micro-organisms that live in dust particles in areas inhabited by humans, by smoke or by mould that forms in damp places, in people who are sensitive to these stimulants. They are seen mostly in the form of bronchial asthma, allergic rhinitis or sneeze attacks.
Structural measures: The storage areas

Should be isolated against dust and humidity
Should be installed with air conditioners
Should be constructed in a way that will get natural sunlight. However, sunlight should be prevented from reaching documents directly, by using shades or filters, since ultraviolet light is harmful for records. Although ultraviolet light carries properties that prohibit pathogens leading to tuberculosis, it cannot be allowed in storage areas. For this, the general measures listed below should be implemented.

General measures: The storage areas

Should be ventilated frequently
Should be kept at a steady temperature and humidity level
Should be cleaned regularly
High powered vacuum cleaners with water filtering systems should be preferred for cleaning.
Floors, shelves, shelf tops and boxes should be wiped with a damp (but not wet) cloth regularly.
To allow easy cleaning and to prevent high amounts of dust, floors should have a surface that allows cleaning with a mop and should never be covered with carpets or similar surfaces.
Records should be housed in boxes.
Staff should be required to use dust masks when cleaning as well as when working with records.
Use of electric air filtering devices should be considered for offices.
Staff should regularly undergo medical checks to make sure nobody is an active tuberculosis patient.
Food should be prohibited in both the storage areas and offices as a measure against vermin and insects.
Atopic dermatitis (eczema): The general name given to allergic skin inflamation created by, among other things, two micro-organisms (types of mites), dermatofegoides pteronissus and dermatofegoides farinae, seen mostly in dust that accumulates on paper material. Mould forming in damp areas are known to create similar problems. Incidence of inflamation is higher in people who have an allergic nature due to genetic or environmental factors. Symptoms: Itch and rash.
Urticeria: Another skin disorder caused by the same factors leading to atopic dermatitis. Symptoms: Local or spreading itch at a medium level and with a skin colour varying from white to pale pink. The inflamated area feels tight and should not be irritated by scratching.
Allergic conjuctivitis: Pain and discomfort caused by the swelling of the exterior most layer of the eye. Incidence is higher in people working in dusty environments. Symptoms: Itch, watering, oedema and reddening around the eyes.
Structural measures: Same as those to be taken for chest infections.
General measures: In addition to the measures to be taken for chest infections:

Clothing and body hygiene should be cared for. With this aim,
Gloves and protective clothing should be worn, when working with dusty material, and these should be frequently changed, washed and/or disposed of.
Parts of the body that come into contact with dust should be washed with soap and plenty of water and moisturizing lotions should be used afterwards, to prevent drying of the skin due to excessive washing.
Discal hernia, lumbar hernia: Painful disorders of the vertebrae formed as a result of wrong postures or actions, forcing the muscles of the back and waist beyond limits they can handle. These muscles most often weaken over time due to lack of enough exercise especially in office workers who work at desks all the time. When these muscles are unduly forced, they may not protect the vertebrae sufficiently, as a result of which the semi-soft tissues between the vertebrae may be damaged or worn, causing the nerves to be entrapped. In extreme cases, this disorder can result in paralysis of the legs. Symptoms: Pain in the waist and the leg.
Fibromyalgia: Local rigidity of the soft tissues (muscles) formed as a result of abuse of the same muscles over a long period of time. Symptoms: Painful muscular spasms.
Tendonitis and Tenosinovitis: Inflammations of the tendons and tendon sheath caused generally by overuse through heavy and/or repetitive physical activity but sometimes by rheumatism, arthritis or an infection. Symptoms: Pain and swelling, stiffness of the joint which is moved by the tendon
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: Compressive neuropathy of the median nerve at the wrist. Occurs when tendons or ligaments in the wrist become enlarged, often due to inflammation, after being aggravated causing the narrowed tunnel of bones and ligaments in the wrist to pinch the nerves that reach the fingers and the muscles at the base of the thumb. Symptoms: Range from burning, tingling numbness in the fingers, especially the thumb and the index and middle fingers, to difficulty gripping or clenching a fist, to dropping things.
Rheumatism: Has many forms. Generally speaking, it can be described as the painful conditions as a result of cold and humid weather conditions stimulating the receptors of the skin sensitive to pain and this stimulation reaching the brain via the spinal cord.
General measures: In addition to the specific measures listed below, the following are recommended:

Refraining from heavy work,
Alternating tasks, if possible, before starting to feel fatigue,
For people working at desks all day, taking frequent breaks (but not skiving off!) to take short walks within the office,
Strengthening the muscles by exercising regularly,
Relaxing the muscles by massaging as soon as fatigue is felt,
If pain has already started in the neck, arm, waist, back or leg muscles, muscle strengthening exercises can be suggested by a physiotherapist
When lifting or carrying heavy loads: Back and waist muscle structures are not suitable for lifting heavy loads. Their major function is to move the body itself around. Therefore,
The weight of the load to be lifted should be carried not by the back or waist muscles but by the leg muscles, which are more suitable for this purpose. For this, knees should be bent so as to allow easy kneeling, the load should be grasped with both hands and held close to the body, and the upwards motion should be performed using the leg muscles, lifting both the body and the load.
Sudden movements should be avoided.
Heavy loads should not be attempted to be lifted to heights higher than the waist.
When carrying loads manually, using a single side of the body should be avoided. The load should be divided, as evenly as possible, to either of the arms, thus distributing it to both sides of the body.
For loads to be carried a long distance or heavy loads, trolleys should be used.
When reaching or looking at upper shelves:
When one needs to reach or look at a shelf higher than the height of the head, steps or ladders should be used.
The chin should point to the front and not upwards.
When working on foot:
The waist should be held straight.
When standing for extended periods of time, one should place one foot on a raised surface (like the step of a ladder) for support, alternating right and left feet every so often, to distribute the stress on the legs and waist.
Women should prefer medium sized heels and avoid flat or very high heeled shoes.
When sitting:
Hard chairs should be preferred and the back should be supported with the back of the chair in an upright position.
The body should not be allowed to relax into a crouch for extended periods.
One or both of the knees should be above hip level.
Chairs with armrests should be preferred for short breaks.
When working at the computer:
The keyboard should be comfortable.
Ergonomic keyboards should be preferred.
Wrists should be supported.
Prolonged work without any breaks should be avoided.
Ergonomic chairs and desks should be preferred when working for long periods.
Exercises should be performed at the desk, every now and then, by stretching the legs and letting the shoulders loose and rotating around their own axis.
Depression: Seen more often in people doing repetitive tasks, working in closed, dark, oppressive environments. Symptoms: Loss of concentration, not deriving any pleasure from life, pessimism, loss of sleep and appetite, fatigue, weepy bouts.
Structural measures:

Working areas should be designed in such a way that they are well lit, spacious and definitely receiving sun light (but, as mentioned above, direct sun rays should not be allowed near the records).
Air conditioning equipment should be installed.
Working with advanced technology products are observed to increase work productivity.

General measures:

The environment should be ventilated frequently to allow influx of fresh air.
To avoid monotony, different, lively and bright colours should be used (e.g. a different colour in each floor of the storage area, a different colour in each shelf run, indicating a different fond can be used).
The lights of the main gangway in the storage areas should be left switched on at all times and the lights of the aisles should be designed in such a way to allow switching on when necessary.
Flowers and plants should be put in suitable places, including the storage areas, but their disinfestation should not be ignored.
Music should be broadcast especially in the storage areas, and even in the working areas (classical music is known to relax and pop music is known to enliven people.)
When performed for a long time, tasks in storage areas are known to cause physical fatigue, tasks in offices are known to cause mental fatigue and tasks in user help desks are known to cause spiritual fatigue. So, staff should be rotated to different departments, allowing them to perform different tasks, every one or two weeks.
Staff should be allowed to take short breaks a few times a day in staff common rooms, allowing them to interact and exchange ideas with their colleagues.
As we have noted, all of the general measures to prevent occupational diseases related to the archive and library professions can be adopted by us archivists and librarians using our own means, most of the times. Because of this, the only thing we should do to protect our health, in the first place, to protect our records and to raise our profile in the eyes of our administrators and staff in other departments is to raise the professional standards, in effect by doing our job properly in the organization that we work for.
We would like to thank Dr. Tevfik Aydin Kazancioglu, MD, for revising the text from a medical point of view.
[1] "Arsivcilik Meslek Hastaliklari. " Hakki Dursun Yildiz Armagani, Istanbul: Marmara Universitesi, 1995: 100-105.

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