When the World Bank began automating clerical work in its East African regional office in Washington, office technology coordinator Janet Dameron pulled together a task force comprising secretaries, economists, divisional chiefs and others whose jobs would be touched by the new techonogy to help with planning.
That was the first step in what seems to have been a faifly thoughtful introduction of workers to machines in one office -- an encounter that hasn't gone as well in other offices in the Washington metropolitan area and elsewhere.
In the past few years, increasingly rapid office automation has collided with other movements, including rising feminism. One outcome is heightened concern about office workers' health and safety, a concern particularly pertinent in an area such as Washington, where the largest category of workers are those in clerical fields.
A great deal of concern has focused on the video display terminals (VDTs) now rapidly being installed in a number of industries, spreading a soft green glow over the nation's offices.
In Cincinnati in July, the National Institue of Occupation Safety and Health (NIOSH) held the first national conference on office-worker health and safety, bringing together employers, union representatives, groups such as Working Women, equipment manufacturers and representatives of a growing industry -- retrofitting offices to make it easier to live in automation.The group ranged from those who wouldn't believe anything good about automation to those who wouldn't believe anything bad.
What the conference demonstrated was that an increasing number of people with different agendas are still groping to define the problems in a rapidly cahnging area.
"What we're looking at is a situation where the ubiqutious VDT is going to be on every desk top," said Amy W. Whol, president of Advanced Office Concepts Corp., a Philadelphia firm that helps businesses plan their automation.
Right now there is approximately one VDT for every 10 office workers at every level, Wohl said. In less than 120 years, there will be one terminal for every worker, she said.
"If we spend the next five years doing studies on what should be done, it will be too late," she said. "In a year or two, too much money will have been committed. . . . We're going to proceed with it whether we know what we're doing or not -- and there will be too many adverse effects if we don't get it right from the first time."
Trying to get it right the first time at the World Bank's East African regional offices included, in addition to involving workers in the planning, finding out what workers' concerns were: radiation, eyestrain, the possibility of cataracts, stress and ventilation, Damron said.
Damron began by reading whatever she could get her hands on concerning office automation. Many of the useful studies came from countries such as Sweden, Austria, Switzerland and New Zealand, where more attention seems to have been paid to the problem, she said.
To address concerns about radiation, the World Bank held several seminars open to the entire staff. The speakers included a representative of the Bureau of Radiological Health and a gynecologist from George Washington Univeristy who is also a specialist in radiation. Many of the fears about radiation from VDTs centered on the impact they have on reproduction.
The seminars, which put the amount of radiation emitted from the machines in perspective by comparing it to the amount of radiation emitted from overhead lights, television and the sun, left the staff more comfortable, Damron said. "All the reports seem to indicate that the VDT does not emit radiation at harmful levels," she said.
The bank, an international agency with offices in Washington, also brought in an opthamologist to take baseline measurements of the eyesight of those who would use the machines. The eye exams have been updated every six to eight months, and no problems have yet emerged. Elsewhere, eyestrain appears to be the msot frequently reported side effect of VDTs, according to many speakers at the NIOSH conference.
Still another measure the bank took to assure unimpaired productivity of workers who could be using VDTs was to acquire chairs that would be comfortable. The chairs bank workers use are easily adjustable by a worker sitting in the chair and can be adjusted for the height of the seat, and angle of the backrest and the height of the backrest.
"Then, when we were installing the equipment, we did it in a way that would give some people some privacy," said Damron. "The bank is going from the 19th century to the 20th century," she said. Recognizing that a change of the magnitude would be unsettling, the bank tried to minimize the disruption, she said.
The bank also tried to install machines in rooms where there were not many windows, and put grids over lights to diminish glare. With an architecths advice about what colors would help alleviate eyestrain, Damron presented the workers who would use the machines with colors from which they could choose to repaint the previously white walls.
The World Bank division also provides acoustical covers for printers that spew out the information put into terminals and for copy holders that put the original matter at approximately the same height and distance from the worker as the VDT screen. Work is usually scheduled so that employes spend no more than four hours a day at the machines, and workers take breaks as they feel they need them, Damron said.
"We tried to address the ergonomic questions," she said. Ergonomics -- the study of the problems of people in adjusting to their environment, particularly to working conditions -- is a word workers and business officials will be hearing about increasingly in the context of the automated office. IBM even has an "ergonomic furniture" division that sells chairs and office units designed around such concerns.
Office automation is such a young field that no one, including NIOSH, in the United States has produced a complete set of rules or guidelines for installing and using automated office equipment. But Damron's office (which would bot be covered by NIOSH regulations) used many fo the measures that have been recommended out of concern for office worker health and safety.
So far, the effort appars to have paid off. Workers profess to like the machines. "It's just fascinating when you can sit down and play with it," said LeAnn Strang, who operates a Micom 2001 computor at the bank.
"The people most resistant to the machines now really like it," Damron said. "You have to be careful how you do things," she added. "If you spend a little more money and act with care and thought, people react differently."
"Automating the office can enahnce work when you consider the human resources first," said Barbara G. F. Cohen, a research psycologist in the motivation and stress research section of the applied psychology and ergonomics branch of NIOSH.
What the NIOSH conference demonstrated, among other things, Cohen said, is that need to improve the traditional methods of epidemilogy and to put them to work in the office. A major issue at the conference was stress and the role that worker participation can play in reducing it, she said.
Another factor in psycological stress is self-esteem, Cohen noted in her summary of the conference."You can hardly separate the psycological issue of self-esteem from one's physical health. High esteem can be a buffer. You can take a lot of stress and garbage and not have it affect you when you have other things going for you," she said.
One of the speakers was Suzanne G. Haynes, an epidemilogist from the University of North Carolina's School of Public Health, who talked about her findings in a multiyear study of the relationship of employment status and employment-related behaviors to the incidence of coronary heart disease.
The study, called the Framingham Heart Study, found that working women did not have significantly higher incidence rates of heart disease than housewives except for those holding clerical jobs. Factors that appeared to contribute to the higher incidence among clerical workers included suppressed hostility, haveing a nonsupportive boss, decreased job mobility and being married (particularly being married to a blue-collar worker).
Besides concern about heart disease, more research is needed in other areas, including "the daily kinds of culmulative complaints," Cohen said. In particular she mentioned muscular strain, including back and neck aches, and eye problems from visual strain related to the use of VDTs, microfiche and other equipment, she said. s
"There is a difference between the work required by the eye for the VDT and other close work," said Ewa Gunnarsson of the National Board of Occupational Safety and Health of Sweden. Gunnarsson said some factors are that the machines are lighted from within, rather than by direct overhead light that the contrast between text and background is different; and that the image on VDT screens is not constant, although it flickers so rapidly it may seem to be static.
"If workers have a paced task where they can't take rest pauses when they want to, there is more eye strain than when they can," she said. She noted that employers in Sweden are taking steps to reduce eyestrain, including providing work glasses for workers with bifocals.
Other conference participants talked about the diffculty of pinning down wether office air pollution problems are related to poor air circualtion or chemicals in the air.
"It's just as hard for managment to know what to do," Cohen said. "I think at this point they would be happy for someone to just come in and lay out all the things to do."