Your Office Health and Safety
Sheila Pantry, OBE
Offices might not be perceived as dangerous places, but this does not mean that you can forget about your health and safety or your staff who work in offices.
There is guidance and advice available for all who work in office premises where it is well known that health and safety risks are low. The guiding principle for much of our health and safety law is that there is a balance to be struck between the risk and the cost of prevention. Where the risks are low, for example in small offices it shouldn't cost much to make sure that you keep within the law.
In the UK there are legal requirements such as the need for a written assessment of risk where five or more people are employed and even then only significant findings have to be recorded.
Assessments are only needed for hazardous substances. For products used in offices this means those with labels carrying a specific health warning. The result will normally be a decision to follow the manufacturer's instructions.
People who work in offices use, and are exposed to, a range of equipment that is exclusive to an office environment including VDUs, office machinery and electrical equipment. This naturally leads onto thinking about ergonomics and the physical environment where people work.
The European Directives such as the Manual Handling Regulations do not set limits, but their objective is to reduce the large number of lifting injuries which are very costly to employers and the country. As far as the Display Screen Equipment Regulations go you should be aware that radiation from Display Screens /Visual Display Units is low level. You do not need to provide screen filters.
Office workers are more exposed to health risks than hazards threatening physical injury. Stress, sick building syndrome and upper limb disorders are possible consequences of the type of work in which office staff find themselves involved in.
Managing health risks is as important as managing physical risks. The long terms effects of failing to do this can be severe and permanent - and as more and more companies are now discovering, costly. But remember that accidents do happen in offices, but the health and safety measures need to be matched to the levels of risk.
Whatever the size of your business you ought to understand the basic legal framework. You have duties to:
- your employees (including trainees), wherever they are working;
- visitors to your office;
- those affected by your work (neighbours or the public);
- people who use products you supply;
- users of your services, for example if you design equipment;
- those who use your equipment or work at a workplace you provide (for example contractors and agency staff). Put simply, you have to take care of the people who may be affected by what you do.
Owners and managers of small, low-risk office premises should be aware that guidance and advice does exist and can be easily obtained from the enforcing authorities such as the UK Health and Safety Executive. (see below for titles and contact point)
Office environments are generally less dangerous than other workplaces but defective plugs, sockets and leads cause more electrical accidents than the appliances themselves. As far as offices are concerned hazardous substances are those with a warning label - if in doubt the supplier should be able to tell you. The supplier must also tell you what precautions to take with the substance. This information is normally provided by a label or data sheet.
Slips, trips and falls account for most of the accidents in offices many of them when staff are moving or carrying loads. They happen because of the condition of floors, poor lighting or untidiness. Such accidents can easily be prevented by remembering the following points:
- DO NOT allow trailing leads to create tripping hazards;
- DO clear up spillages quickly;
- DO replace or repair torn floor coverings etc;
- DO provide handrails on stairways and ensure stairs are well lit;
- DO NOT block passageways or corridors.
Small offices are unlikely to require air monitoring or health checks for staff but you should consider the following:
- DO make workstations comfortable with seating where necessary. Seats may need to be adjustable to suit the height of the work table and footrests can reduce muscular strains;
- DO keep your first-aid box fully stocked and appoint someone to take charge in an emergency and call an ambulance. If you have part-time workers arrange for the duty to be shared;
- DO make arrangements so that staff can use rest areas/rooms without experiencing discomfort from tobacco smoke.
If you have an air conditioning system which has a water cooling tower. Do remember that the system will require routine checks and maintenance to prevent the growth of legionella bacteria. Hot water services are also a possible source of legionella bacteria and further information is given in the HSE booklet The Control of Legionellosis including Legionnaire's Disease.
The main problems which can occur with the use of VDUs are related to the design of the job or workstation. If there is intensive or continuous use in your office, make sure that there are adequate breaks and that users know how to arrange their work and workstation to avoid awkward movements, reflections, aches and pains. Further advice is given in the HSE booklets Ergonomics at Work and Working with VDUs.
Do consider whether your staff are at risk from violence when transporting cash or dealing with the public. Guidance is available in the HSE booklet Violence to Staff.
Advice on the basic workplace requirements on toilets, washing facilities, drinking water, temperature, cleanliness, lighting space and ventilation can be found on all these points in the HSE's Approved Code of practice and guidance: Workplace Health, Safety, and Welfare.
If you have a lift, make sure it is examined every six months by a competent person (for example your insurance company).
Remember that you must have in place adequate fire safety procedures.
The UK Health and Safety Executive, the Loss Prevention Council/Fire Protection Association, The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, British Safety Council all produce a large number of guidance booklets.
Free advice can be obtained by contacting the health and safety inspector at the local council, usually located in the Environmental Health Department or from HSE.
Likewise there is a very wide range of guidance and advice listed in a number of CD-ROMS such as OSH-ROM, OSH-CD, FIRE-CD, FIRE WORLDWIDE.
The products mentioned in this article are available for a free trial. Why not try these for yourself and check out the contents of these exciting sources of information against your own workplace needs?
Health and Safety: guide to sources of information, by Sheila Pantry, 1997 4th edition, published by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, Edgbaston Park, 353 Bristol Road, Birmingham B5 7ST, UK Fax: +44 (0) 121 248 2050
Relevant books/leaflets and Priced publications
Approved Code of Practice: Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 ISBN 0 11 886333 9
Essentials of Health and Safety at Work 1994 ISBN 0 7176 0716 X
The Control of Legionellosis including Legionnaire's Disease 1993 HS(G) 70 ISBN 0 7176 0451 9
A Guide to the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 L1 1990 ISBN 0 7176 0441 1
A Guide to the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963 HS(R)4 (rev) 1989 ISBN 0 11 885463 1
Health and Safety Law: What You Should Know (poster) ISBN 0 11 701424 9
Maintaining Portable Electrical Equipment in Offices and Other Low-Risk Environments IND(G) 160 L ISBN 0 7176 0719 4 (available in packs of fifteen)
Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992: Approved Code of Practice and Guidance L24 ISBN 0 7176 0413 6
Report of Injury or Dangerous Occurrence Form 2508 ISBN 0 7176 0417 9
COSHH - A Brief Guide for Employers: The Requirements of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSSH) Regulations IND(G) 136L
Ergonomics at Work IND(G) 90L
First-Aid Needs in your Workplace: Your Questions Answered (rev) IND(G) 3L
5 Steps to Risk Assessment IND(G) 163 L
Getting to Grips With Manual Handling. A Short Guide for Employers IND(G) 143L
Health And Safety at Work etc Act: Advice to Employees HSC 5
Passive Smoking at Work IND(G) 63L
Reporting Under RIDDOR HSE 24
Violence to Staff IND(G) 69L
Working with VDUs (rev) IND(G) 36L
Writing a Safety Policy Statement: Advice to Employers HSC 6 (for those firms with five or more staff for whom a written policy is a legal requirement)
HSE priced and free publications are available by mail order from HSE Books, PO Box 1999 Sudbury, Suffolk CO10 6FS UK Tel: +44 (0) 1787 881165 Fax: +44 (0) 1787 313995.
If your office is attached to or part of a factory then the Health and Safety Executive will be your enforcing authority. If you need advice on fire precautions, you should get in touch with the fire prevention officer of your local authority, or contact Information Services Manager, Loss Prevention Council/ Fire Protection Association, Melrose Avenue, Borehamwood, Hertfordshire WD6 2BT, Tel: +44 (0) 181 207 2345 Fax: +44 (0) 181 207 6305