Safety in the Office

When we think about workplace safety, the first thing that usually comes to mind is factory workers wearing steel-toed boots.  But office workers have a few issues they need to think about if they want to stay safe on the job.


Ergonomics was a big buzzword a few years ago, when repetitive strain injuries started making headlines.  Basically, it is a science that involves fitting the workplace to a worker’s physical capabilities, to avoid muscle and skeletal injuries.

Typing for long periods of time can result in pain, weakness and conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome in the wrists.  Practicing correct posture can help prevent these types of injuries, along with back problems and other health hazards.

ergonomicsImage:  Clarkson

You may be familiar with this advice, but a lot of office workers don’t really think about it until an injury occurs.   For example, when lifting heavy objects such as a box of paper off the floor, avoid this:

Sorry, Peter.  He should have done this instead:

Some employees wear wrist braces and back braces to keep from hurting themselves.  If your work requires you to lift and/or do repetitive motions, ask your boss about assistive devices to help you.  Tennis elbow may sound like a joke, but it hurts, as I can tell you from personal experience.  So be careful when lifting, pulling and pushing objects, machines, or even heavy files.

Personal safety

My pet subject, personal safety, is too vast to write about here.  I already covered what to do when a shooter enters your workplace, although that is a very rare scenario.  More typically, you might encounter the following.

Theft of personal property

We don’t like to think our coworkers or vendors could steal from us, but sometimes the temptation is too great.  Thieves may also pose as vendors or customers in need of a bathroom, etc. to gain access to private areas.

    • Lock your valuables in a secure drawer or locker, or in your car out of sight.
    • Keep doors closed and locked, especially at night or in sensitive areas.
    • Some workplaces have check-in procedures for visitors.  Follow them!
    • Don’t leave valuables lying around for sticky fingers to take.  Leave your toys and credit cards, etc., at home.
    • Be discreet about vacations.  If someone gets your address from your personal items or correspondence, you may come back to find your house has been robbed.  So don’t post online or talk too much at work about where you’re going, or your timeline.

Crime in the workplace and after hours

You don’t have to be female to become a crime victim.  Use your head and pay attention.

    • If you’re working late, make sure doors are secure so people can’t just randomly wander in.
    • When walking to your car, keep your head up and be aware of your surroundings.  Get your key out and be ready to open the door.  Check in and around the vehicle before entering and exiting.
    • Someone following you, or just going the same way?  Don’t be shy—turn and look.  If a bad guy knows you’ve seen him, this can sometimes deter him.

Natural disasters and fires

In areas prone to earthquakes, tornadoes, and other dangerous weather or natural events, your workplace should have a plan.  There should also be one in place for fires.  Study these and make sure you know where to go in the event of an emergency.

If your company has regular fire or tornado drills, please take them seriously!  Treat them as actual emergencies.  Your HR or safety department doesn’t do this to inconvenience you.  They do it to keep you alive.

Using drills to practice will keep you from panicking in a real emergency, because you'll already know what to do.

Using drills to practice will keep you from panicking in a real emergency, because you’ll already know what to do.

Image:  cbenjasuwan /

Be careful when handling electrical cords, appliances, coffeemakers, and other office machines.  You don’t want to get shocked or start a fire.

Medical emergencies

It’s scary to think about, but any of us can become ill or injured at work badly enough to need medical assistance.   Make sure you check your handbook and get with your boss on how to handle an incident.

Some companies, especially industrial ones, have at least a couple of employees with first aid certification.  Know who these people are and where to reach them in case of emergency.  Or consider becoming certified yourself.

If you must call 911, here are some things to remember:

    • You may feel scared or upset, but try to stay calm.  Take a deep breath.
    • Give the location of the emergency.  It may not be where you’re calling from.
    • Answer the operator’s questions as best you can.  Follow the directions and advice the 911 operator gives you.
    • Make sure someone goes to the door to meet the ambulance and direct emergency personnel to the right area.


Most safety rules involve common sense and practice.  They won’t help you if you aren’t familiar with them.  It’s hard to think about unpleasant things, but a few minutes of preparation and regular review will help keep you safe and healthy at work.


What If a Shooter Enters My Workplace?

With the Aurora theater shootings still in most people’s minds, I want to point out that such situations—mass killing sprees—are extremely rare.   You’re more likely to die in traffic or falling in the tub than to get killed in a movie theater or a restaurant by a lone gunman.

One situation where this might happen is in your workplace.

Here’s what OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) has to say about workplace violence at their website:

Workplace violence is any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site. It ranges from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and even homicide. It can affect and involve employees, clients, customers and visitors. Homicide is currently the fourth-leading cause of fatal occupational injuries in the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), of the 4,547 fatal workplace injuries that occurred in the United States in 2010, 506 were workplace homicides. Homicide is the leading cause of death for women in the workplace. [More…] However it manifests itself, workplace violence is a major concern for employers and employees nationwide.  (U.S. Department of Labor,

Domestic violence can easily spill over into the workplace.  In my city a few years ago, a woman who worked at a local business was shot and killed—at work—by her estranged husband, who then turned the gun on himself.  He easily could have killed or wounded her coworkers.

I’m one of those people who makes an escape plan everywhere I go; it keeps me entertained while I’m standing in line somewhere to imagine what I will do if the zombie apocalypse suddenly begins while I’m there.  In 1980, the McDonald’s shooting in San Ysidro, CA woke me up.  To this day, I won’t sit with my back to the door in a restaurant.

Am I afraid?  Not exactly.  I’m cautious, yes.  Personal safety is a pet cause of mine.  I firmly believe that if you are prepared to handle a situation, no matter how remote it might seem, that when it does you will react appropriately.

This video, called Run-Hide-Fight, was posted on Facebook by my local news.  It is a disaster-preparedness video with a very simple strategy on how to react to a shooting incident.  In the illustrative case, it’s at the office.

WARNING:  While not graphic, the video is very intense. 

Your boss or HR professional may not be able to tell you if someone is in a situation that could turn violent, or your coworker might have kept it a secret.  They should, however, have safety strategies in place, and so should you.

“How do I know if something might happen?”


There are always signs of impending violence. Unfortunately, if you’re in a situation like the Aurora or San Ysidro incidents, you won’t see them until the shooter acts.

Security expert Gavin de Becker, in his excellent book, The Gift of Fear, lists pre-incident indicators (PINS) that may be a sign someone is not to be trusted.  You can find them summarized in this Wikipedia article.

de Becker says many people use these tactics every day, especially men who are trying to talk to women, and they’re not necessarily sinister, but they should give you pause.

Another handy acronym de Becker uses is JACA, which stands for four elements in the perception of a person contemplating violence:

(Perceived) Justification:  can the person justify using violence to solve the problem?

(Perceived) Alternatives:  is there any other alternative to violence?

(Perceived) Consequences:  are they intolerable, or can the person live (or die) with them?

(Perceived) Ability:  does the person have the ability to carry out the violence? [1]

Knowing how a perpetrator thinks goes a long way in risk assessment.  You can apply the JACA elements to a lot of situations, de Becker says, even on a global scale.  I think it should be required reading in business and human resource courses especially.

Read the book.  I have owned two copies, my current one, and the first, which I gave to someone who was on the verge of being stalked.  No, I’m not an affiliate and I don’t have any connection to Mr. de Becker.  I think he’s on the ball and I want you to be safe.

None of this means you have to be in a low-grade panic all the time.  Whether it be wearing a seat belt or getting first aid/CPR training for a job, advance preparation can save your life.


Some resources you might want to check out:

Fact sheet on domestic violence, from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence.  By Gavin de Becker, security expert.

How to interpret the news:

National Crime Prevention Council workplace safety page

Hans Zimmer scored all three Nolan Batman films.  His composition, Aurora, is a lovely and moving requiem for the shooting victims, containing the Batman theme.  You can download it at the link below.  Yes, it’s legit.

 Aurora, a composition by Hans Zimmer.  100%  of proceeds go to the Aurora Victims Relief Fund at Community First Foundation (


[1] de Becker, Gavin. (1997). The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence. New York, NY.  Published: Dell Publishing, a division of Random House, Inc.

Passwords: Potential for Problems

We need passwords for everything these days.  Email, network access, shopping, and increasingly, online applications.

I have, as of today, twenty accounts with various employers / career websites.  Each site requires a user name and password.  This is getting ridiculous.  I could use the same one for all of these, since they really aren’t that important in the scheme of things.  After all, I’ll abandon them as soon as I get a job.  But that doesn’t stimulate my creative side.  And it’s not a good idea in general.

A strong password contains letters, numbers, and special characters as allowed by the software.  As my job search continues, some of those words are becoming less than polite.   Obviously I can’t share them with you.  At least it makes them easier to remember!

“Enter password here…Poo8pyH3ads….”

Image: Stuart Miles /

Basic password safety includes the following:

  • Create passwords that aren’t easy to guess.  Microsoft’s Security Center has an article on how to do this
  • Don’t store your passwords where they can easily be accessed.  If you write them on a sticky note and post it on your monitor (or even in your desk drawer), anyone rummaging around your desk can get them.
  • Never share them with anyone.  Most IT people at your company who need to work on your machine will ask YOU to log in, or they will do so as an administrator.
  • Don’t use the same password for everything.  If anyone gets it, they have access to all your accounts.

Regarding sharing, there has been buzz recently about employers asking for applicants’ Facebook passwords, or asking them to log in while they inspect their pages.

THIS IS WRONG.  Wrong, wrong, wrong.

This article in the Canadian Financial Post says it best:  that Canadian courts have labeled it an intrusion into seclusion.  It’s also a violation of Facebook’s terms of service.

In the US, the state of Maryland has taken action regarding privacy for students, but federal lawmakers are still struggling with it.  Almost nobody agrees that it’s okay, but trying to draft legislation that addresses it is difficult.  The laws haven’t caught up to the Internet yet.

State-of-the-art government computer.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

What’s a jobseeker or employee to do when faced with this dilemma?

This article by Tony Morrison gives some good advice on what to do if a potential employer asks for your passwords.

There may be some high-clearance jobs where you have to do this; I don’t know what to tell you about that.  Some law enforcement positions require insanely intensive background checks.  If you’ve got questionable activities going on, they’re probably going to find them anyway.   But for most of us, it’s unnecessary.

Take care of your passwords.

Personal Information in Your Online Job Search

My online friend Gert recently asked me this question:

Do you have your resume up on your LinkedIn profile? What kind of contact information are you giving on it? I don’t want my number and address just out in public, so I have a version of my resume with just my email address… I’m not sure if that’s going to hurt me in the long run if I upload that version.

I think Gert’s concerns are well-founded.  She wants to stay safe, but is worried that employers won’t know how to contact her.

Identity theft is a real problem.  I would definitely not put my phone numbers or address on any profile website.  Especially not my home number, which is listed and can actually lead someone to my front door.

But would it look bad to simply include an email?  No, not really.  Most emails have a spam filter, so if you end up getting crap, you can redirect it so you never see it.  It goes without saying that you should never click on links in emails.

Job sites like have an option to upload your resume when you apply for a listed position.  It’s perfectly okay, however, to use one that only contains your email.   You can create an email specifically for your job hunt.  Make sure it looks professional;  isn’t going to cut it.

Check the site’s privacy policy on how they share information you give them.  If you’re not comfortable with it, you don’t have to apply there.  Careerbuilder has different levels of privacy, or you can just use it to search.

Generally, if you’re looking for work you should be checking your email, Facebook and LinkedIn a couple of times a day at least.  So you’re unlikely to miss anything.

Some companies, like universities, healthcare, and government, have online applications.  These are encrypted so you don’t usually have to worry about information being public.  If you’re truly concerned about hackers, you can always go to the facility and apply in person, on paper.

Personal information you should never include online:

  • Social security number, marital status, driver’s license number, bank account/credit card information.  You don’t need to provide your social security number until you are hired by a legitimate company.  And I hope you did your homework checking them out.  Only scammers want the rest.
  • References’ contact information.  Most companies won’t ask for this up front unless you’re filling out a detailed application.  It doesn’t belong on your resume.  Don’t compromise your references’ safety.
  • User names, passwords.   Never, ever give a potential employer access to your social networking page, email, etc.   I would not even consider one who asked!  Don’t friend them either.

Check these links for more information about staying safe and avoiding scams.

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) scams and safety page

University of Connecticut Dept. of Career Services job search safety page for students

Yahoo! Article:  Hazards of Internet Job Boards – how to screen job postings

Protect Yourself from Scammers at Work

Falling for scams online or over the phone at work can impact your job.  At the least, they are time wasters.  At worst, they can make you download malicious viruses or malware and crash your computer, or even the whole network.

Common email scams include:

The errant package

You get an email that appears to be from FedEx or UPS about a misdirected package.  You are then invited to click a link to retrieve the information.  You click the link and unleash a virus onto your computer, causing your IT person to hit you in the head with a hard drive.

PREVENTION:  Delete immediately.

Bogus warnings

The email warns of a major virus attack, or some vaguely urban legend-sounding thing like evil house plants or death by light bulb.  This might just be a hoax warning designed to waste time, but if it contains an attachment or link, don’t click it.

PREVENTION:  Your IT professional should be up on the latest threats to your system.  Take warnings from that person seriously.  Delete or block emails from unfamiliar sources and don’t forward these warnings to other people. You can check if it’s legit at

Payment transfer scams        

The email asks you to receive a payment, then cash the check through your bank and forward the money back to the sender.  You keep a percentage of the money “for your trouble.”

PREVENTION:  Ignore it.  This is money laundering.  The check is bogus, and when it bounces you’ll be on the hook for it.

Government agencies

“An email from the IRS!  Am I in trouble?”  You will be if you click this one.  The IRS, the FBI, DEA, etc. will not email you.  They will always, always either send you a letter or show up on your doorstep.

The Federal Trade Commission posts great information about phishing emails here.  You can also sign up with the FBI for updates on e-scams here.

PREVENTION:  Don’t worry about emails from the IRS.  If you’re in trouble with them, you’ll know it.

Office personnel who answer the phone are prey to scams as well.  A good receptionist will filter these calls, but if one gets through, you’ll be armed against the scammers.  If you’re freelancing and have a business line, you need to know how to screen these calls yourself.

The toner scam

“Hi! This is [fake name], for customer service on your copier!  What was the model number again?”

This scam is designed to get you to reveal information.  Then you get a box of junk toner you didn’t order and a bill for $600.

PREVENTION:  If you get this call, hang up.  Most offices lease copiers and fax machines and have a service contract with the vendor.  The vendor doesn’t call you; you call them when the machine needs repair, toner, etc.  If you ask the caller what company she’s with, she’ll hang up.

Yellow Page listings

This scam wants you to say the word “Yes.”  They get you on tape and then claim you agreed to the outrageously expensive goods or services, which you may or may not receive.

PREVENTION:  Just say “No” or hang up.  NEVER say the words “Yes” or “Okay.”

Newsletter scam

The caller will ask if you’d like a free copy of a trade newsletter.  What they don’t tell you is if you accept, you agree to a subscription that costs upward of $200.

PREVENTION:  Once again, never say “Yes” or “Okay.”

Tell callers you don’t do business over the phone, and ask them to mail you information.  If they can’t or won’t do that, chances are it’s a scam.

A little due diligence can save you and your employer a great deal of trouble.