The Light Stuff

We take lighting for granted. Other than being either too bright or too dark, most of us would be hard pressed to describe the lighting details of our work environment. In fact, lighting plays a major role in mood, productivity and health. It makes good sense to survey your work environment for adequate and healthy lighting.

Besides, there's science behind it. In short, lighting affects your frame of mind. When light enters the eye, the retina sends signals to suppress the production of melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone. At the same time, it sends signals to increase energy-giving serotonin. Give people too much light and they'll eventually become disoriented; too little, and they'll hit some serious depression.

All lighting is not created equal. One common office lighting culprit is the outdated fluorescent lighting system. Old fixtures are bad for a number of reasons, not the least of which is their unattractive downlight, which can cast ghoulish sickly shadows on us all. Fluorescent lights can also flicker and hum. One solution is to upgrade electro-magnetic ballasts with new solid-state electronic parts, which will eliminate the annoying buzzing of the older models. While you're at it, consider dimmable ballasts for even better light modulation.

Health note: Ballast manufactured prior to 1978 can contain PCBs – a hazardous material known to leak out of older units.

You might consider completely removing overhead lighting in favor of a preferred indirect or uplighting system. A lighting system designed this way will direct light to the ceiling, which you should paint in a matte, light-color to evenly disperse reflected light. The resulting effect – known as the cloudy day effect – is both shadowless and glare-free, providing the ideal environment for the computer user.

But aside from being ugly and making us look ugly, what exactly is the problem with fluorescent lighting? Plenty, according to health statistics. Common health symptoms caused by fluorescent lighting are reported by workers to be:
  • Headaches
  • Indigestion
  • Nausea
  • Blurred vision
  • Flickering sensations
  • Burning eyes
  • Tension
  • Vision fatigue

But lest we put all the blame on fluorescents, glare also poses office lighting problems. The result of window light, poorly lit work areas or reflected light, glare can cause many of annoying physical symptoms, including eye strain and muscle aches from contorting yourself to avoid glare. Fortunately, window coverings and VDT screens can quickly fix this problem.

Sometimes too much light is the problem, especially if you work at a computer. Here are a few suggestions for improving the conditions of an overly lit office:
  • Turn off some of the overhead lights
  • Install dimmer switches that can be controlled by individual users
  • Convert to an indirect lighting system

For an inexpensive, quick fix in an office with lighting problems consider purchasing a couple of dimmable halogen floor lamps and a task light. This works primarily in an enclosed or small office. This strategy is not exactly state of the art, but it can be done quite inexpensively while providing good VDT lighting and a friendlier, comfortable atmosphere.