ALTOM: A reminder that offices are full of low-tech hazards

One of the benefits I thought I was getting when I moved from a shop-floor job to an office job was much improved safety. I carry a few scars from my days carrying tools, and I’m happy to report that after many years sitting in front of a keyboard I have no such permanent reminders of my office job.

Oh sure, I’ve had my share of mishaps. Coffee spills are commonplace. My back and limbs can get stiff if I’m too engrossed to get up every so often. And I know the usual risks—carpal tunnel, slips in the break room, burns from the rising steam out of a bag of newly microwaved popcorn. But for the most part, my equipment has suffered far worse than I have. My unfortunate cordless headset wasn’t designed to be dropped onto concrete floors, for example.

So I guess I’ve been pretty complacent about office safety. Then along comes word from England about a risk I hadn’t thought about. The National Health Service, which you’d think would naturally know a thing or two about health and safety, recently realized that an unrecognized hazard was stalking the workplace. They have banned the metal paper fastener. At least in Manchester.

I would have dismissed this news as some sort of blogger fantasy were it not that the report emanated from the venerable Beeb, the stodgy BBC, as well as other major media. I have to say that a narrative this bizarre always trips my skepticism trigger. It reads like something that Dilbert’s nemesis, the Pointy-Haired Boss, might decide to do. The Manchester NHS site is silent on the matter, which only intensified my doubts, but aside from the BBC, the story ran in the Mirror, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., and the Manchester Evening News, so it appeared to definitely be genuine.

So here it is: NHS Manchester issued a memo explaining that due to an employee being accidentally cut by a metal paper fastener, henceforth only plastic ones would be permitted to bind papers together. The memo even cautions that the offending metal paper fasteners should be “carefully disposed of immediately,” perhaps using tongs at arms-length, and while wearing a hazmat suit.

The various reports indicate that employees, far from being grateful for their employer’s concern, are somewhat miffed at being painted as so inept that they can’t safely handle metal paper fasteners. It’s not like they were accused of shooting the things at one another, although I’m quite sure that such battles take place. They have in every office I’ve ever been in. Fortunately, even plastic ones can serve as ammunition, although they’re harder to bend into a fire-ready shape. If the Manchester office workers want some pointers, they can get in touch with me.

Note that the memo stated “paper fastener,” not “paper clip” as many bloggers have written. The Mirror erroneously reported that the memo said “paper clip” and so the blogosphere has repeated it. According to the CBC, what Manchester NHS actually banned was those mushroom-shaped metal studs with legs that are used to hold pages together at their edges, not paper clips. Although paper clips could be next, I suppose.

Of course this has engendered an outpouring of scorn from the Web as hundreds of bloggers keep repeating the story and being as snarky as they can about the NHS. Whether it’s “paper clips” or “paper fasteners,” the effect is the same. The story fosters further derision coming as it does on the heels of some other oddball safety requirements, such as the recent insistence that children in Didsbury, a suburb of Manchester, use chopsticks when bobbing for apples, out of fear of catching a flu bug.

I’m frankly a little surprised that Manchester targeted paper fasteners for its administrative salvo. There are worse things in the average desk drawer. I’ve pinked myself many times on colorful map pins and been nicked by damaged wire spiral bindings. Paper cuts are known to everyone who has to shuffle those deadly items for a living. Even laser pointers can be hazardous if they’re pointed right into an unprotected retina.

Then there’s the desk itself, which has enough scalp skin and hair fragments on its underside from unwisely rising too soon after plugging in computers and printers that it might make the folks from the crime lab look askance at me if they were ever called. And my worst personal dread is reserved for the carelessly stapled document that has part of the wire sticking out at a murderous angle.

And that’s not to mention what may be the very worst danger lurking in the office, at least from my cardiologist’s point of view—my concealed stash of candy bars.•


Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at

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