Workplace and Office Lighting Standards and Policy
How much light is best?
Which of the following is the best lighting scenario for an office environment?
Lighting Policies in the Workplace
Office managers and company officials of assorted ranks are often faced with making decisions regarding lighting in the office space. Lots of opinions are bounced around, but frequently decisions are made based on misinformation or even just someone's opinions because he or she happens to be the one in charge. In light of recent events in this author’s experience, reasons were given for imposing a policy that insisted all lights in the office be turned on that included OSHA as a primary justification, and that “bright lights will make everyone happier and more productive.” This decision was obviously meant to be in the best interest of the company, but it met with many complaints, and even a few instances of very intense emotional opposition. One person was so upset she didn’t even come to work the next day. Some people were happy with the decision and even called those who favor a much darker workspace “cave dwellers.” It seems very likely many companies have had lighting issues with their personnel about which decisions are made with the justification of OSHA regulations and improved productivity beneath brighter lights.
What follows is an analysis of these two concepts compiled after careful reading from numerous academic, governmental and industry sources including a detailed lighting experiment carried out by the Light Right Consortium, managed by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and contracted by the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Lighting Research Center and the National Research Council of Canada Institute for Research in Construction (NRC-IRC), along with several other academic inquiries involved with lighting, its effects on productivity, psychology and mood. In addition, the actual documentation from OSHA has been carefully reviewed. The findings of this research have come to the following three conclusions:
1) OSHA does have a minimum standard for office environment and lowers it even further for workstations.
2) There is no uniform lighting level to optimize productivity, and while lighting levels do correspond to individual productivity, they do so on a highly variable and individual basis.
3) Non-daylight lighting can have negative impacts on business in three key areas including emotional/psychological issues involved with human neuro-biology and physiology; financial implications due to heat generation as well as energy consumption and environmental factors; and productivity/profit.
OSHA on Office and Workplace Lighting
To begin, OSHA has set forth a standard of thirty (30) foot-candles as a minimum lighting requirement for “office” space (United States, Illumination). For clarification, Webster’s defines the term "foot-candle" thusly, “A foot-candle is a unit of illuminance or illumination, equivalent to the illumination produced by a source of one candle at a distance of one foot and equal to one lumen incident per square foot” (“Foot-candle” 746). The OSHA chart has been reproduced below, and can be quickly viewed HERE.
The rules are clear regarding where and when illumination is required and how much, including thirty foot-candles for an office environment. However, OSHA has appended this standard by creating a separate guideline for workstations (seen HERE). In this document, OSHA sets for the guidelines as follows, “Generally, for paper tasks and offices with CRT displays, office lighting should range between 20 to 50 foot-candles" (United States, Computer). The softening of the thirty foot-candle regulation indicates recognition on the part of OSHA that in the actual workspace, there is less need for brilliant lighting in some cases. This is not merely supposition, as that particular document begins with the acknowledgment that environmental factors do have an impact on productivity, and even link “comfort” with “productivity” in one line (United States, Computer Workstations).
Office Lighting – the relationship between light and productivity
In considering this factor, the relationship of comfort to productivity, there is a vast sea of research making that relationship perfectly clear. In the extensive experiment conducted by the group working for the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory mentioned in the introduction above, this was one of the essential components of their investigation. Ultimately the conclusion they had on this regard was as follows:
Overall, these experiments found that changing lighting installations influenced appraisals of lighting quality, and that people who were more satisfied with their lighting (regardless of the type of lighting they experienced) considered the space to be more attractive, were happier, and were more comfortable and more satisfied with their environment and their work. (Veitch 145)
First, it should be noted that the term “quality lighting” was established and was defined as “the intersection of individual needs, architectural form and external conditions (energy, environment and economics)” (Veitch 146). With that definition in mind, consider the above passage. People that were satisfied with lighting were “comfortable with their environment and work.” Arguments can be made as to whether a company wants their workers to be comfortable or not, but to assume discomfort as preferable seems counter-intuitive. In addition, the use of the parenthetical “regardless of the type of lighting they experienced” gives evidence to the variable nature of preference amongst the people participating in the studies, as there were several different lighting set-ups used over the course of the experimental process.
Variability and Personal Choice
This variability in what pleased whom lead to the conclusion that having personal control over lighting was the best choice for a workplace environment. The essential point was that different people wanted and needed different levels of lighting. In fact, the main thrust coming out of this experiment was to suggest that for optimal productivity, workplaces should consider installing lighting with individual unit controls so that each person had total control of the light levels in their own workstation. This conclusion is supported in the work of Nancy Clanton, a lighting design specialist who speaks internationally on lighting issues and who teaches lighting courses and seminars around the world as well as at the University of Colorado. Clanton writes:
Controls are extremely important in office-lighting design . . . Manual controls give workers control over their individual work environments, increasing user satisfaction and acceptance. Because each person has different lighting-level requirements, glare tolerances, and task performance goals. (9)
Once again the importance of the “individual” is clear, and Clanton emphasizes the idea that “each person has different lighting-level requirements.”
Psychologists have further developed this idea, and have linked productivity to personality traits of extroversion or introversion:
Extroverts generally have a higher threshold for sensory stimulation than introverts do, which means extroverts aren’t as affected by bright lights or loud noises. Introverts tend to prefer less stimulation, and are more affected by sensory input. Introverts also tend to be easily distracted by their senses. Bright lights and loud noises wear them out. In contrast, extroverts are more comfortable in the midst of a 'gong show.' Their performance and mental state may not be as negatively influenced by sensory stimulation.
If you’re an introvert at work, make sure your office or space offers low amounts of sensory stimulation. (Pawlik-Kienlen)
Again the evidence is clear in support of the notion that different people have different light requirements, and this documentation even provides a breakdown as to the who and why that is the case, and even goes on to illustrate why some people are going to be more productive in a much lower light environment than others. There simply is no one-size-fits-all lighting level. The experts are in agreement that the best situation for the workers is to be allowed to determine what lighting suits them best individually.
Other Benefits of Lighting the Workplace Right
Positive impact on the satisfaction and mood of workers is not only advantageous to the workers. The organization benefits as well. Offices wherein lighting is not perceived as being unfavorable by workers are more productive; have higher levels of customer satisfaction from their clientele; and have less employee turnover. Veitch, one of the authors participating in the experiments referenced above, wrote,
Other researchers have demonstrated that satisfaction with lighting contributes to greater environmental satisfaction, which in turn leads to greater job satisfaction and that higher environmental and job satisfaction leads to greater organizational commitment and reduced intent to turnover. Moreover, organisations whose employees are more satisfied show better customer satisfaction and business unit performance [Sic]. (146)
This reduction in turnover and improved productivity is not the only benefit of workers being satisfied that an organization will enjoy. Clanton wrote:
What building owners, developers, and employers do not realize is that maximizing daylighting [Clanton’s term for use of windows and sky lights for natural light], installing suspended luminaires, and giving employees control over lighting raises user-satisfaction levels well above 20 percent. Considering that employee salaries are close to $90 per square foot per year, while lighting and control first costs $5 to $10, improving visual quality is a safe investment. (9)
Not only is she championing the benefits of individual controls here, she is even suggesting that spending money to improve lighting by installing personal controls (and “daylighting” which will be addressed a bit further down), is worth spending money on if those controls are not already in place. Now it is not the intent of this article to propose investment in lighting controls for all companies, but it is the intent of the document to suggest that mandatory maximum lighting may not be in the interest of maximum productivity. The evidence supports allowing individuals to control their light-spaces as much as possible to accommodate the highly divergent nature of personal preference, which translates to individual productivity.
Both videos (above and below), while disussing home office, examine elements of lighting that pertain to office and work stations in general.
Light can even be fun!
Psychology, Physiology and Less Tangible Things Are Affected by Workplace Lights
Personal preference is obviously a key and almost random seeming factor here. Where some prefer bright light, others prefer to work nearly in the dark. Very few people like glaring fluorescent lights. Un-natural lighting (as referenced in opposition by the term “daylighting” above), particularly in large amounts, is counter-productive to the workplace and to human physiology. This is partly due to psychological and biological reality. In his article discussing the color variability in light, Jeff Sauer writes:
Many people tend to find that the warmer white light of tungsten creates a more pleasant environment than the colder light of an office environment. Although in either case our brains do a good job re-establishing our own internal white balance, thereby creating a new reference by which we judge a healthy face or edible fruit. (19)
Clearly what is at stake here is the very ability to recognize the recognizable. Communication is at stake, implicated by the suggestion that we judge “healthy faces” and, by reasonable extrapolation, the expressions thereupon. This is verified in Clanton’s work as well. She writes, “Directional light from parabolic troffers creates uncomplimentary lighting for people’s faces. Because non-verbal communication depends on realistic facial views, the parabolic effect can be disastrous [Sic]” (9). “Disastrous!” she says. The very nature of communication is at stake. Good communication is essential in a workplace, and too much un-natural light actually puts that at risk. Too much un-natural light impacts how we understand each other and how we interpret our environment. Going back to the latter part of Sauer’s comment regarding “recognizing edible fruit,” the impact of un-natural light actually works on deeply rooted, primitive parts of our cognitive process too, invoking the pre-historical, early formative portions of our neurology, bringing in how we locate ourselves in the familiar and the safe. And while Sauer writes that we do a “good job” of “re-establishing our own internal white balance” this does require that people actually make that unnatural adjustment. Human history is one that took place primarily beneath the sun and for tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of years by fire light. It is no accident that the natural light of fire is used in spiritual ceremonies across religions around the globe. Naturally occurring light is comforting. Artificial is not. Massive amounts of artificial light can be even more uncomfortable, particularly for some.
Beyond the Human: Cost and Environmental Impact of Office Light
In addition to the human elements of lighting, and the obvious productivity issues that unpleasant lighting conditions create, there are other costs associated with lighting as well. According to Paul Walitskey, the North American Environmental Affairs Manager for Philips, “Lighting consumes about 40-50% of energy use in a typical office building” (3). Obviously companies with large rooms filled with Internet servers or other variables will have different percentages, but nonetheless, this statement suggests that the costs involved with lighting are extremely large and not something that should be ignored. Given this, any reduction of lighting that falls within legal standards should be considered as a means of saving money. An example of this would be the lighting above the marketing department at this author’s workplace. Four fixtures are mounted above that area, primarily over one cubicle. According to OSHA, “A standard fluorescent light fixture on a nine-foot ceiling with four, 40-watt bulbs will produce approximately 50 foot-candles of light at the desktop level” (United States, Computer Workstation). If OSHA standards want thirty foot-candle minimums, and actual workstations only require twenty foot-candles of light, this particular cubicle is getting approximately two hundred foot-candles of light. That is TEN TIMES the amount specified by OSHA. Not only might that much blinding glare be unfavorable to the individual working beneath that luminous onslaught, it is costing the company ten times more to light that area than the company needs to pay. This factor can be multiplied out across the office space, mediated, of course, by personal preference in such cases wherein certain individuals may favor more light. In those cases, while the light is costing more, remember what was said earlier regarding “improving visual quality is a safe investment” (Clanton 9). In instances of preference for more lighting, the cost is justifiable as that individual’s productivity will, according to the data, be higher for his or her being comfortable in that work environment. The point is that any reduction in lighting is a reduction in cost, not to mention a reduction in energy consumption as well. “Even a reduction of 100 watts is going in the right direction,” says George Milner, the senior vice president of energy, environmental, and governmental affairs for a large paper company after his plant underwent a massive process and equipment evaluation to reduce their carbon footprint and energy expense (qtd in Mitchell 24). Productivity and profits are improved on the macro level by micro level adjustments across the board.
Office Lighting Policies Should be Flexible
In conclusion, the data and research suggest that having a mandatory maximum lighting throughout the building may have negative impacts on productivity and therefore profit. The evidence suggests that allowing people to select their own lighting levels based on some unquantifiable factors, but factors that are rooted in primal processes of physiological and psychological origin, is the most efficient route for a company to take short of actually investing in advanced lighting processes and designs. By allowing the lights to be on or off by departmental and individual preference, not only is overall productivity to be at its best, there will be less employee turnover, better communication amongst the staff, a healthier environment and lowered overall company expense. Furthermore, no OSHA violations are put in play with the lowered lighting so long as the workspace lighting does not dip below twenty foot-candles. If verification needs to be done regarding minimums, a process for determining this is simple:
Foot-candles can be easily measured and calculated with the use of a (manual) camera equipped with a built-in light meter. With the film speed set to ASA 25 and the shutter speed set to 1/60th of a second, focus on a sheet of white paper placed in the area where intensity is to be measured. Adjust the f-stop for proper exposure. Each f-stop has an approximate corresponding foot-candle reading. (“Foot candle” 2)
Short of violating actual OSHA standards, it is the recommendation of this author that policies of mandatory maximum lighting should not be enacted. Such policies, while perhaps well-intended and founded on a belief that the more light there is the more productive an organization will be, are not supported by the facts.
Clanton, Nancy. "Seeing the Light on Office Lighting." Heating/Piping/Air Conditioning HPAC Engineering 76.9 (Sep. 2004): 9-9. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. California State University of Sacramento, Sacramento, CA. 23 May 2009 <http://proxy.lib.csus.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy.lib.csus.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=14412851&site=ehost-live>.
“Foot-candle.” Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. 2nd Ed. 2001.
“Foot-candle” (2). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 23 May 2009. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foot-candle>.
Mitchell, Robert L. "Mohawk Fine Papers Inc." Computerworld 43.15 (20 Apr. 2009): 24-24. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. California State University of Sacramento, Sacramento, CA. 23 May 2009 <http://proxy.lib.csus.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy.lib.csus.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=38813776&site=ehost-live>.
Pawlik-Keinlen, Laurie. “How Light Affects Your Mood: Sensory Data Improves Extroverts’ Performance, Decreases Introverts.’” 26 March 2009. Suite 101.com. 24 May 2009. <http://psychology.suite101.com/article.cfm/how_light_affects_your_mood.>
Sauer, Jeff. "In Search of a Consistent Gray." Sound & Video Contractor 26.12 (Dec. 2008): 18-21. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. California State University of Sacramento, Sacramento, CA. 23 May 2009 <http://proxy.lib.csus.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy.lib.csus.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=36011303&site=ehost-live>.
Veitch, J. A., et al. "Lighting appraisal, well-being and performance in open-plan offices: A linked mechanisms approach." Lighting Research & Technology 40.2 (June 2008): 133-151. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. California State University of Sacramento, Sacramento, CA. 23 May 2009 <http://proxy.lib.csus.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy.lib.csus.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=32187185&site=ehost-live>.
Walitsky, Paul. “Sustainable Lighting Products: Energy Use and Toxic Content-Choices for Sustainability.” 23 May 2009. <http://www.energycodes.gov/news/2002_workshop/pdfs/walitsky.pdf>.
United States Department of Labor. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Illumination. 1926.56. 23 May 2009. <http://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=STANDARDS&p_id=10630>.
---. Computer Workstation. 23 May 2009. <http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/computerworkstations/wkstation_enviro.html>.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.