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An office may not be an environment that comes to mind when thinking about hazardous workplaces; however, there are risks to be wary of in the comparative safety of an office too. There are thousands of health and safety related incidents that occur each year at work, and although an office can easily be considered a low-risk workplace, it is important that health and safety rules and regulations are still adhered to. By law, under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, every employee is entitled to work within a safe environment, and not addressing health and safety commitments can leave an organisation open to serious prosecution and other implications for both the business and the people in charge.
What is the role of an office?
An office is an overreaching term to describe where administrative functions of an organisation take place. It can be a desk, a room, several rooms, or a building where people do non-manual work. The layout of office space can vary depending upon, for example, the size of the organisation, the functions the office space is accommodating and the number of people employed to carry out those functions.
Office workspaces may be, but are not limited to, for example:
- Private office – this is where just one person works
- Shared office – this is an enclosed workspace where two or three people work
- Open plan office – this is an open workspace where at least ten people work
- Small meeting room – this is a room for up to four people
- Large meeting room – this is a large room where upwards of twelve people can meet
Offices can also be referred to as front office and back office. The front office is a business term that refers to an organisation’s departments that come in contact with clients and/or members of the public including the marketing, sales and service departments. The front office welcomes visitors, meets and greets them and/or handles their queries either face to face or via other communication media. The back office is a part of most operations where tasks dedicated to operating the organisation are performed. Examples of back office tasks and roles include accounting, administration, procurement, HR, facilities, IT etc.
There are a variety of staff roles that work in offices for part or all of their work time, and specific role titles and duties may vary between individual settings. Common to all roles is the legal duty that an employer has to ensure that all employees are operating within a safe working environment in the office to keep them safe, avoiding injury or illness, and the employees’ responsibility for ensuring compliance with all relevant policies and procedures, and legal and regulatory requirements including health and safety.
What are the main health and safety risks office staff can encounter?
Office safety is a very important concern to be aware of and there are very real workplace health and safety risks associated with an office environment.
Some of the most common injuries that happen in the office workplace setting can include, but are not limited to:
Slips, trips, and falls – these are one of the most common hazards across all workplaces, not just office environments. They account for around 30% of workplace injuries as reported by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). An accident caused by a slip is possible in any environment and is quite hard to plan for. A small spillage and an unaware employee could result in a nasty accident or serious injury. All spills should be cleaned up immediately and signs placed out to indicate wet floors. It is important to not only have wet floor signs but also for employees to be aware of where these floor signs are and when they need to be used.
Anything from exposed wires, to uneven flooring, to cluttered areas can result in a trip or fall. Office walkways and space around desks should be kept clear, as boxes and other clutter can create a trip hazard. Electrical and telephone cords should also be properly secured and not stretched across aisles or walkways, and carpets should not be frayed or buckled. Weather conditions such as rain, snow and ice, create outdoor slip hazards on exterior steps, ramps, walkways, entry and exit areas, and parking areas. Nonslip runners can greatly reduce slip, trip and fall hazards during winter months.
All it takes to cause someone to fall is leaning too far back on a chair or improperly using a chair or desk as a stepladder. Objects that are not put away or are left where they shouldn’t be, can be knocked off shelving or desks or tripped over. Ensuring staff know how they should act within an office environment can be achieved with clear rules regarding running, climbing and other activities which could increase risk.
Manual handling injuries have a major impact on all workplaces and sectors, costing the economy hundreds of millions every year. Manual handling encompasses a wide range of actions including lifting, lowering, pulling, pushing, and carrying awkward and heavy objects; the risks are endless for anyone working in offices who may experience manual handling injuries, such as:
- Back injuries
- Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) such as shoulder strain
- Repetitive strain injury (RSI) such as wrist strain
- Soft-tissue injuries to the wrists, arms, shoulders, legs or neck
- Long-term pain in the arms, legs or joints
Overexertion is something that is easily done in any environment and can be difficult to avoid. Overexertion is usually caused by someone trying to lift or move something heavier than their capabilities or doing so incorrectly. The need to move something heavy within an office environment is rare, but can be required on the odd occasion. Manual handling tasks should be avoided wherever possible. Where it isn’t possible to avoid handling a load, suitable safety measures should be introduced and all staff should receive manual handling training to prevent and avoid injury.
Injuries such as electrical shock and burns can occur through poorly maintained electrical equipment. All electrical equipment including staff’s own electrical equipment, will require portable electrical testing (PAT) and other specific inspections. All equipment that uses a flexible wire or cable to connect to a power supply such as but not limited to computers, printers or photocopiers qualifies as a portable appliance and needs to be checked. Portable appliance testing (PAT) is the term used to describe the examination of electrical appliances and equipment to ensure that they are safe to use.
Most electrical equipment safety defects can be found by visual examination but some types of defects can only be found by testing. A PAT test involves a visual inspection to check the appliance casing and flex for wear or damage. Plugs are also checked for damage, correct wiring and ensuring that the correct fuse rating is used.
After the equipment has passed a visual inspection it will normally undergo a series of electrical tests using a fully calibrated electrical PAT tester. A label will be attached to each appliance indicating the test results, and any item failing the tests will be easily identifiable and should be removed from service until repaired. You should record and retain the results of all PAT testing in an appliance register for future reference.
Fire safety is an essential part of any workplace environment, and whilst fires are not necessarily common in an office environment, fire safety is a serious subject and precautions must be taken by all organisations. These precautions include checking all power cords are in good condition as detailed above in PAT testing, power outlets are not overloaded and, if used, electric heaters are monitored closely. It is also vital to ensure that emergency lighting is installed and that employees know where fire extinguishers are located, where their nearest fire exit is, and that emergency exits are clear at all times. Regular fire alarm testing should take place as well as regular fire evacuation tests.
Prolonged use of computer workstations and display screen equipment (DSE) can lead to neck, shoulder, back or arm pain, along with stress, fatigue and temporary eyestrain. It is an employer’s responsibility to protect employees from the health risks of working with DSE.
Most people working in offices spend several hours a day using all types of display screen equipment (DSE) such as, but not limited to:
- CCTV screens
- Desktop computers
- Equipment display screens
- Handheld devices
- Interactive whiteboards
- Projection screens
- TV screens
There are several health risks associated with using DSE for extended periods of time; these include:
- Upper limb problems
- Shoulder, neck and back pain
These health issues can usually occur with poorly designed workstations or the improper use of DSE, including their overuse. Repetitive strain injury (RSI) is a general term used to describe the pain felt in muscles, nerves and tendons caused by repetitive movement and overuse. It is also known as work-related upper limb disorder, or non-specific upper limb pain, and may be caused by improper use of DSE. As an employer, there is a specific duty under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (HASAWA 1974) that must be complied with regarding Display Screen Equipment (DSE). The law states that employers must have risk assessments of equipment with display screens, helping to ensure display screen safety and minimising negative health effects to all employees who use DSE.
Even if office-based employees are not using DSE, sitting down for hours a day can cause serious strains and other injuries, if not sat correctly. It is important for people to move about regularly to ensure blood flow around the body, avoiding potential medical issues. Getting up to make tea or coffee or choosing to physically get up and visit a colleague to have a conversation that may have otherwise been had over email can help. Also, there are many types of ergonomic equipment including desks, chairs, computer keyboards etc. that can prevent these types of injuries. If a specific risk here is identified, these could be effective ways of mitigating it.
Uncleanliness can be a huge problem in an office environment, whether it is an unclean desk, toilet facilities or kitchen. This can result in injury or illness if an employee comes into contact with bad bacteria, rust and other hazards as a result of poorly maintained workspaces.
Inhaling or consuming chemicals – although there aren’t many ways this can affect an office environment, it is still a serious injury and should be avoided at all costs. Whilst it is an employer’s responsibility to ensure that the workspace is clean, it is also important that they ensure that any cleaning products cannot be accidentally consumed or inhaled by employees.
Cuts are also rare in an office environment but can be caused as a result of poor training, ignorance or lack of awareness when dealing with sharp objects, and even paper handled badly can cause quite deep cuts. Employers have a responsibility to ensure that all staff are trained to use any equipment and that sharp objects don’t become a hazard in the workplace.
Temperature and ventilation – cold temperatures are known to increase the risk of conditions such as repetitive strain injuries. When in a cold office environment, the coldness is combined with a lack of movement which can cause joints to seize up or aggravate repetitive strain and other injuries.
Being too hot in an office environment is sometimes hard to avoid, especially in the summer months and in workplaces that contain a large number of people and computers. This can potentially result in dehydration and overheating which can also worsen existing conditions such as arm cramps. Offices should take measures to ensure this doesn’t happen and that employees remain comfortable and well by having accessible thermostats and windows, and access to plenty of clean drinking water.
The lack of ventilation in an office opens the area to damp and polluted air, which could create dampness and potentially affect someone who suffers from asthma. Due to the warm atmosphere and close spaces between employees, illness can spread around an office with ease. Helping employees deal with illness including encouraging working from home and providing sick pay helps prevent sickness from spreading around the office.
Dealing with challenging behaviour, predominantly from members of the public, but also from work colleagues, can put those working in offices at an increased risk of being subjected to violence and aggression at work. Any incident in which a member of staff is verbally abused, threatened or assaulted by a colleague or member of the public during the course of their work should be reported. Staff should be effectively trained to work with potentially violent and aggressive customers; for example, being able to recognise triggers and have appropriate strategies to use to de-escalate situations.
Probably the most overlooked risk, offices often create a highly stressful environment and can aggravate existing or cause mental health issues. Stress can be a real hazard in the workplace, with the HSE reporting over 11 million days of work being lost a year because of it. Workplace stress can be caused when employees are overloaded and can’t cope with pressures. Employers can tackle this by adjusting workloads to match employees’ rate of work and skills.
As well as being prepared for stress, it is also important that employers are aware and sympathetic to other mental health issues, whether ongoing or new. Stress and other mental health issues amongst other complications have been known to lower immune systems, making employees more susceptible to illness. Employers can also conduct stress risk assessments as well as being open to employees talking about their issues.
Maintaining a safe work environment is important, even in potentially low-risk work environments faced by office workers. It is important that every hazard is met with elimination or, at the minimum, a control measure to mitigate any potential risk.
Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (1999), the minimum a business must do is:
- Identify what could cause injury or illness in your business (hazards)
- Decide how likely it is that someone could be harmed and how seriously (the risk)
- Take action to eliminate the hazard or, if this isn’t possible, control the risk
Risk assessment requires making a judgement on Risk Severity. Risk Severity = probability of risk materialising x impact of risk on, for example, a person or people, a business, a property etc.
Probability may be understood as:
- Low (Level 1) – a reasonably informed person would think it very unlikely this risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
- Medium (Level 2) – a reasonably informed person would think there is a significant possibility this risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
- High (Level 3) – a reasonably informed person would think there is a very significant or even likely possibility the risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
Impact may be understood as:
- Low (Level 1) – any impact that is minimal, having regard to the importance of interests affected, impairment of function and duration. Typically, the impact is isolated and short-lived.
- Medium (Level 2) – any impact that is significant, having regard to the importance of interests affected, impairment of function and duration. Typically, the impact is limited to one function or group, but there is a material operational impact and the effects may continue.
- High (Level 3) – any impact that is severe, having regard to the importance of interests affected, impairment of function and duration. Typically, the impact impairs a critical function and/or has a systemic impact and the effects may be long-lasting or permanent.
Office workers must ensure an assessment has been made of any hazards, which covers:
- What the potential hazard is – the risk assessment should take into consideration, for example, the type of equipment used, the way in which it is used and the environment it is used in
- Who or what could be harmed by the hazard
- How the level of risk has been established
- The precautions taken to eliminate or control that risk
Managing risk is an ongoing process that is triggered when changes affect an office worker’s work activities; changes such as, but not limited to:
- Changing work practices, procedures or the work environment
- Purchasing new or used equipment or using new substances
- Workforce changes
- Planning to improve efficiency or reduce costs
- New information about the workplace risks becomes available
Risk assessments should be recorded and records regularly reviewed and updated whenever necessary. Should an accident occur, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) will request copies of the risk assessments.
There are a number of laws and regulations that apply to the management of office environments, including but not limited to:
The Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations, state that employers must take steps to protect DSE users/operators, that is those who use DSE daily for an hour or more at a time, from these related health and safety risks.
The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 – the main provisions of these regulations require employers to provide:
- Adequate lighting, heating, ventilation and workspace and keep them in a clean condition
- Staff facilities, including toilets, washing facilities and refreshment
- Safe passageways, for example to prevent slipping and tripping hazards
The Working Time Regulations 1998 (as amended) – these regulations implement two European Union directives on the organisation of working time and the employment of young workers (under 18 years of age). The regulations cover the right to annual leave and to have rest breaks, and they limit the length of the working week.
Why is PPE important
Personal protective equipment (PPE) protects workers from hazards such as trips, burns, electrocution, infections and falls. While there is some PPE that is universal to many occupations, office workers have very little staff PPE which is specific to their job.
This includes, but is not limited to:
- Masks – wearing masks became the norm during COVID, and some office workplaces continue to use them on a voluntary basis.
- Hi-vis jackets – these are usually supplied to people acting in the role of fire warden in an office environment.
- Disposable gloves (vinyl or nitrile) should be worn by employees when clearing any spills, or by first-aiders when dealing with injuries in an office environment.
What training should office staff take?
Depending upon their role, staff and management working within an office environment will have completed training and qualifications specific to that role. In addition to their occupational training, office staff will need to participate in adequate health and safety training to ensure that they are competent to do their work safely. When office staff are trained to work safely, they should be able to anticipate and avoid injury from job-related hazards. Safety training is essential for all office employees appropriate to their role, and training should be directly applicable to the responsibilities and daily practices of the person being trained.
This training for office employees might include, but is not limited to:
- Health and Safety for Employees
- Health and Safety for Managers
- Office Health and Safety
- Manual Handling
- Workplace First Aid
- Assessing Risk
- PAT Testing Awareness
- Fire Safety Awareness
- Fire Warden
- DSE Awareness
- DSE Assessor Training
Office workers should at a minimum refresh their safety training at least every 2 years and participate in continuing professional development (CPD).
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