From the 1950s, when the office equipment industry was reeling from the Great Depression, the US government set up an office of Safety and Repair, tasked with ensuring that the country’s offices were safe from disaster.
The office has since been credited with saving countless lives, from the death of a pregnant woman in 1958 to the discovery of a mysterious mass of maggots that eventually led to the deaths of several people.
One of those workers was a woman named Marilyn Bower, who died in 2012 after contracting maggot infection.
The death sparked a public debate over whether it was necessary to have a safety-critical office.
Now, a study by scientists at the University of Pittsburgh, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, suggests that office furniture, even if it was not designed to withstand the hazards of a fire or an explosion, may not be unsafe at all.
“It is clear that in the past few decades, many safety-related interventions have not been designed to adequately address hazards that would arise in office environments,” they wrote.
“The literature on workplace hazards, including fire hazards, shows that the majority of the studies that examine workplace hazards report that the risks to human health are not necessarily the same as those that arise from the office environment.”
The study also suggests that many offices that were designed to meet the office-fire safety standard have been retrofitted for fire safety.
In addition to Bower’s death, more than 3,000 people have died after being injured in offices in the US since 1960.
The study’s authors say that, over the past 50 years, office furniture manufacturers have “failed to adequately test for hazards, implemented corrective measures, and have taken proactive actions to prevent accidents.”
But while the authors are critical of many of the devices that have been designed, they also note that the study’s conclusion that “safety and repair of office equipment remains largely unproven” is not surprising given that safety has not been the main focus of the office safety push.
“For a number of decades, safety has been the dominant focus of many workplace safety interventions,” they write.
“These interventions have been undertaken primarily to improve workplace conditions or to improve employee safety, but they have not consistently addressed the complex human responses that are needed to cope with office environments.”
The US Office of Management and Budget, the agency that oversees workplace safety in the United States, did not respond to requests for comment.