Does going to work make you sick?

There's little doubt many workers toil under unhealthy, even dangerous circumstances. To most of us that means a chemical plant or coal mine.

But, asserts Washington author Joel Makower, the office--where the bulk of America's workers seems to be headed--can also be hazardous to your health.

The "cushy office job," he contends in a self-published paperback, Office Hazards (Tilden Press, 233 pages, $6.95), "has evolved into a veritable nightmare of physical and psychological ills."

The situation, of course, is "by no means as dramatic" as that of the blue-collar laborer. Improper lighting, he acknowledges, "doesn't seem a major calamity," and "stuffy air" is not something to get especially perturbed about.

Still, he says, add up all the potential irritants the office worker may experience on the job. Such as:

* Too much noise.

* Interior air pollutants like cigarette smoke and chemical fumes from the duplicating machine, insulation and synthetic fabrics (trapped by tighter insulation installed to cut energy costs).

* Chemically treated paper and other office materials.

* Overheated or underheated rooms.

* Poor, even dangerous, office design.

* Uncomfortable chairs.

Then, "throw in" such emotional stress-producers as "a hard supervisor and family problems"--and "all of a sudden you have a potentially explosive situation."

Many ailments that "have come to be associated with growing old," he argues--"varicose veins, bad backs, deteriorating eyesight, migraine headaches, hypertension, coronary heart disorders, respiratory problems, digestive problems"--can be "attributed to some degree to spending time in an office environment unsuitable to the worker."

He's quick to point out he doesn't mean the irritants are "causing" these ailments. "I can't say that. But there's a significant case to be made that they are significant contributers."

Free-lance writer Makower, 29, a 1975 journalism graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, was co-author between 1976 and 1979 of annual editions of the Washington-based consumer guide, Help: The Indispensable Almanac of Consumer Information. While there, he began clipping newspaper and magazine articles about office-worker complaints.

"After four years, I had a 3-inch-thick file" on everything from "carpet shampoo fumes to noise, computers and stress."

Among the cases he cites from that file:

* 60 employes of a New York office building complained of "headaches, hives, scratchy throats and drowsiness." An investigation concluded "that the newly renovated offices contained low levels of fiberglass particles that had escaped from the insulation."

* A Dallas office building had to be sealed off "after employes developed a form of pneumonia that resulted from fungus in the air-conditioning system."

* Workers in a new 14-story downtown Washington office building reported they were suffering repeatedly from "headaches, nausea, sleepiness." One suggested cause: "Exhaust fumes from the ground-level garage and loading docks," which circulated "through the building's ventilation system."

About this time, says Makower, "it occurred to me that a couple of hundred people"--in business, government, health and education--"were working on aspects of the office environment." They were looking into such questions as how video display terminals affect a user's eyesight, whether fluorescent lighting fails to provide the full range of ultraviolet rays necessary, and the radiation potential of the new technology.

This information, he realized, "had never been put together." He admits that his book might have been more dramatic if it had been "a story where I had got sick on the job." (The name "Tilden Press" was picked at random. His best explanation: "Tilden Park in Berkeley is near and dear to me.")

The time "seems to be right," Makower says, for the office environment to become a major issue. In July, the National Institute of Occupation Safety and Health held the first national conference on office-worker health and safety in Cincinnati, which he attended. A Reagan Administration draft rewrite of the Clean Air Act now circulating would order the Environmental Protection Agency, for the first time, to study indoor air pollution.

"Knowledge workers"--the bulk of whom spend their day in an office--now make up almost half the nation's labor force, he points out. Meanwhile, computers and other tecnological developments are bringing major changes in the way office workers do their job.

For some, especially clerical workers assigned to tasks that keep them seated in front of computers, the change has not necessarily been for the good. In some firms, he says, the computer paces the employe's work rate. "That's not very, very different from a Ford assembly plant."

In many of the new-style open offices, he says, workers can't shut doors to block out noise, turn off glaring lights or open a window when the ventilation system bogs down. "If you turn off the lights, it may affect the entire floor.

"People have lost control over their lives. You can see why people in offices are getting more uptight than they used to."

Managers, he believes, "generally have pooh-poohed the notion that offices can be hazardous to workers. They all came up through offices and made it."

They may see health complaints "as a rebellion against technology" by employes fearful the new machinery will cost them their jobs. "People assume I'm opposed to technology," he says, "but I'm a technology freak. I wrote my book on a word processer."

Well-designed chairs that can be adjusted to each person's size are on the market today, he says. "But they're extraordinarily expensive. They buy them only for top management--who tend to sit the least. They have more flexibility to get up and move around. The secretary doesn't."

If you think fumes or other irritants are troubling you and your co-workers, he suggests keeping a detailed record of when the problem occurs. Work with your office managers--who may be suffering the same ill effects--to uncover the source. People differ in their susceptibility to irritants, but if 20 percent are affected that can reduce an office's productivity.

Employe documentation is necessary, he says, because "You can't identify these things by walking into an office. You have to live in it."

But, he warns: "If the problems demand immediate attention due to serious health problems, long waits may be neither possible nor advisable." The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) "has the ability to respond to inquiries about suspected office environmental problems . . . "

In many cases, "what seem to be serious problems are really unremarkable and have simple solutions." Correction may require adjusting "a bit of the insulation or putting up a wall--as opposed to redesigning the whole ventilation system."

One office "phenomenon," he says, "is the growing awareness of the need for exercise. Those sedentary workers need to get up and stretch." Some firms have instituted exercise periods and others are installing gymnasiums.

The environment in his office?

"I work at home. I don't have an ideal office. But I have the flexibility to leave it when I want, to open and close doors and drapes and to unplug the phone. I stop working when I feel stressed and fatigued."