How to Identify Hazards in the Office

BACKGROUND


Statistics

At first glance, offices appear among the safest environments to work in when it comes to potential hazards.

For the most part, that’s true - but it’s easy for even the safest working environments to become hazardous if a duty of care to employees is neglected.

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Here’s a quick breakdown of some recent figures:

    • In the UK, 144 workers were killed at work in 2015/16, and an estimated 621,000 non-fatal injuries to employees were reported

    • Injuries requiring time off work in the UK were reckoned to be responsible for a total loss of around 4.5 million workdays in all sectors

    • According to comparable recent figures from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were approximately 2.9 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses reported by private industry employers in 2016

    • These occurred at a rate of 2.9 cases per 100 full-time equivalent (FTE) workers in the US

    • This number includes 892,270 occupational injuries and illnesses in 2016 that resulted in days away from work in private industry

    • While most types of workplace reported a very slight decline in illness and injury rates over the previous year (in line with a general trend that has largely persisted since 2004), the finance and insurance sector is one example of a ‘safe’ occupation that saw its numbers increase during 2016

    • Although still statistically uncommon, fatal work injuries from falls, slips, or trips continued on a general upward trend, increasing 6 per cent in 2016 - contributing to a 25 per cent total rise since 2011

    • Statistically, slips, trips and falls on the same level (as opposed to from heights) remain by far the biggest threat to office-based workers: not only is falling down the most commonly reported office accident, it is also responsible for causing the highest number of disabling injuries

    • While office-based staff tend to be less directly at risk from most types of serious injury at work than employees in some other occupations, they’re 2 to 2.5 times more likely to suffer a disabling injury from a fall on level ground than non-office workers

    • The most frequently cited causes of office injuries from slips, trips and falls include:

  • Tripping over an open desk or file drawer, electrical cords or wires, loose carpeting, or objects in hallways/walkways
  • Bending or reaching for something while seated in an unstable chair.
  • Using a chair in place of a stepladder or similar
  • Slipping on wet floors
  • Inadequate lighting

    • Other frequently cited risk areas for office injury, illness or absenteeism in general include:
  • Ergonomic problems
  • Eye strain
  • Fire-related hazards
  • Poor indoor air quality

Responsibilities and record-keeping

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As stated by the UK Government Health and Safety Executive (HSE):

    • The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 place an obligation on employers to assess risks and, where necessary, take action to eliminate or control the risks

    • The Health and Safety (First-Aid) Regulations 1981 also require employers to provide adequate and appropriate equipment, facilities and personnel to ensure their employees receive immediate attention if they are injured or taken ill at work

    • Adequate and appropriate’ will vary from workplace to workplace; that’s why it’s essential to carry out a comprehensive health and safety risk assessment on your premises

It is also advised that people have an accident report book in which they record all incidents; any records made in reporting incidents must be stored in line with the Data Protection Act:

    • All employers, self-employed people and people in control of work premises have duties under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 (RIDDOR)

    • HSE will pass details to the relevant enforcing authority

    • RIDDOR applies to all work activities but not all incidents are reportable

    • Be aware that cover should always be in place for workers assigned special duties such as first-aid supervision or emergency services contact

    • Note that appointing someone specifically to take charge of first-aid arrangements at all times is a MINIMUM requirement in any workplace

    • In a relatively hazard-free environment, this person needn’t always necessarily have any specialist training, but it’s always preferable if they do

Legal Implications

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    • In the UK, the HSE and local authorities are responsible for enforcing health and safety legislation; each has a range of tools for securing compliance with the law and ensuring a proportionate response to offences

    • 2016/17 is the first full year where new sentencing guidelines have been in effect (see resources for a full description)

    • 2016/17 data on prosecutions showed a large annual increase in the total amount of fines handed down (£69.9m), up from £38.8m in 2015/16; the second consecutive year of large increases

    • The average level of a fine has also shown an increase since the sentencing guidelines came into effect, moving from £29,000 per conviction in 2014/15 to £58,000 in 2015/16, and has reached an average of £126,000 per conviction in 2016/17

    • A feature of the new guidelines is that fines relate to organisation turnover; large companies convicted of offences are now receiving much higher fines than before

    • The single largest fine in 2016/17 was £5m, and a total of 38 cases received fines of over £500,000; in the 2014/15 period (the last full year without the new guidelines), the single largest fine was £750,000 and only 5 cases were settled at or above £500,000

    • In addition to fines, there are other penalties which individuals or organisations can face upon conviction of a health and safety offence

    • A duty holder may be prosecuted for more than one offence within the same case

    • Note that it is also a LEGAL DUTY of employers to have arrangements in place for administering first-aid to staff who are injured or become ill at work; this applies irrespective of whether or not the situation was caused, directly or indirectly, by the work itself

    • Employers are legally obliged to inform all employees of the arrangements in place for provision of first-aid, including the location of relevant equipment, facilities and personnel

    • The above regulations apply to all workplaces, including those with fewer than five employees, and to the self-employed

    • While the above duties and responsibilities don’t necessarily extend to non-employees (e.g. members of the public) in the vicinity, HSE strongly recommends that all potential site visitors be included in your potential hazard assessments, and catered for accordingly


HAZARD AWARENESS AND LIMITATION

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Common types of office hazards

i. Slips, trips and falls on the same level

    • HSE data suggests that these sorts of incidents are responsible for around one-third of total injuries reported at workplaces across all sectors; in office environments, that proportion is considerably higher

    • In most cases, the cause of these sorts of accidents is readily apparent, and the solutions are both cheap and effective

ii. Muscle strains and musculoskeletal problems

    • Heavy lifting, poor posture during both sitting and standing tasks, and repetitive strain injuries are typically responsible for a significantly higher proportion of total lost work days in office environments than in many other sectors

    • Back and neck strains are an especially common problem

    • The HSE cites some 507,000 employees as suffering from work-related musculoskeletal disorders (new or long-standing) in 2016/17, for a total of 8.9 million working days lost due to work-related musculoskeletal disorders in that period

    • Upper limbs, necks and backs combined accounted for 83% of all reported musculoskeletal disorders; lower limbs represented 17%

    • Again, in most cases the solution - improved office ergonomics and better staff training - proves a fast and effective way to reduce these figures dramatically


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iii. Falling objects

    • Cuts, scrapes, concussions, eye injuries and various other risks posed by falling or flying items in office environments are less commonly reported, but by no means exceptional

    • Investment in proper storage, proper attention to environmental lighting/visibility, and improved employee risk awareness/alertness are among the quickest and easiest ways to reduce these sorts of incidents

iv. Cuts and lacerations

    • Most cuts and lacerations reported in office environments are relatively minor, but stem from a wide range of interactions: office machinery, kitchen equipment, workplace furniture and stationery items are all common causes

    • Better training in the correct use and handling of all office equipment is paramount, along with quick and easy access to approved first aid items and techniques in the event of an accident

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v. Fumes, chemicals and other toxic substances

    • Few office workers interact directly with many hazardous chemicals or substances as part of their assigned role; however, it’s important to be aware of how and when these interactions might occur during a normal workday

    • Even when there is little to no risk of direct contact with explicitly toxic substances, there may still be a generalised risk posed by poor indoor air quality (dust, fumes, mists, vapours etc)

    • Risks posed can be both short- and longer-term, including breathing impairment, skin reactions and eye problems

vi. Workplace stress and/or violence

    • While incidents of violence within the workplace are relatively rare across most industries, they can often result in more serious injury or even death, and remain potential a hazard to be especially vigilant about

    • Stress is an increasingly common cause of reported absenteeism; in fact, it’s one of the few causes that has been growing steadily in recent years, particularly within office environments

    • The HSE reports that 526,000 workers were logged as suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety (new or long-standing) in 2016/17, for a total of 12.5 million working days lost

    • Reported causes of stress, depression or anxiety averaged between 2009/10-2011/12 were attributed to:

  • 44% Workload
  • 14% Lack of support
  • 13% Violence, threats or bullying
  • 8% Changes at work
  • 21% Other

10 quick and easy ways to reduce common risks

This is by no means an exhaustive checklist for reducing office hazards (we’ll address how to go about doing that in the next section).

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Instead, use the checklist below as a starting point for all office environments to have covered as a baseline - 10 easy and quick measures anybody with a duty of care to office employees can take    immediately:

Declutter all areas of the office that receive regular footfall, particularly in busy corridors and walkways: ensure employee routes between the various designated areas of the office are entirely clear of boxes, files, equipment, furniture and cables at all times

Make sure that suitable storage solutions are provided for all items on shelves or in cupboards, that heavier items are stored lower down, and that appropriate measures are in place to help workers access stored items they’ll need to use in their line of work

Educate workers in the importance of securing desk drawers, filing cabinets and cupboards when not in use, and place reminder signs around the workplace: trips, falls and other injuries are commonly attributed to desk drawers being left open, heavy filing cabinets tipping forward or cupboard doors at head height not being closed

Check for and fix any snagged, loose or uneven areas of carpeting, linoleum, floor tiles, rugs, or other potential trip/slip hazards at ground level

Ensure that suitable clean-up materials and floor coverings are immediately available in all areas at risk from spillage - hard walking surfaces and spilt liquids are a dangerous combination responsible for many reported injuries each year

Create clear lines of vision in all areas; connecting doors should have glass panelling to allow for visibility on both sides, and ‘blind’ bends in corridors should use convex mirrors to enable staff to foresee and avoid potential collisions

Provide adjustable furniture and equipment for better ergonomics around the office: chairs, desks, keyboards and computer monitors should all be adjustable to allow workers of any stature to achieve a comfortable and safe working position

Train staff fully and frequently in the correct use of all equipment they interact with as part of their day-to-day roles and responsibilities - including any adjustable personal equipment - as well as in what to do if something goes wrong with a given item or scenario

Check for general environmental suitability in all staffed areas: a reasonable flow of clean air, sensible temperatures and good lighting must be achievable in all zones that will be populated for extended periods of time, or wherever any work-related tasks will be carried out

Ahead of an accident or hazardous situation arising, have a clearly defined and well-understood outline of roles, responsibilities and safety measures in place at all times - including provisions for any key staff who may be absent or working off-site at the time

MAINTAINING A SAFE OFFICE ENVIRONMENT

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Making an actionable checklist

As with all health and safety considerations, the first step in achieving a checklist for a safer office is to make a careful and detailed inventory of the immediate physical environment.

This is best done in groups of two or more - ideally including both a senior member of staff with overall responsibility for health and safety, and at least one employee who will be working regularly in the environment being assessed.

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    • Pay close attention to the various environments and zones in and around the workspace, considering the potential for both general hazards and scenarios specific to that area.

    • As a general guide, take particular notice of any zones around the office or wider workplace complex where any of the following apply:

        • Areas at greater risk from spills (liquids or solids), and potential subsequent slipping hazards - these might include kitchens, bathrooms, storage spaces, and any corridors or stairways connecting them

        • Areas in which heavy items are stored, and any storage above head height

        • Areas in which cabling, furniture, decor or other items on the ground might present a trip hazard

        • Areas of reduced lighting or general visibility - this might include places where the view ahead is obscured, such as at connecting doors

        • Areas in which air quality is poor, or in any way at risk of becoming compromised

        • Areas where worker activity - either assigned or otherwise - might pose a risk to other employees passing through

        • Areas where ergonomic issues may arise, including all workstations and any other zones or tasks involving prolonged sitting, standing or repetitive motions

        • Areas where there’s any risk of staff exposure to harmful chemicals or other toxic substances

        • Areas or tasks in which workers are potentially exposed to risks of accident, infection or violence from outside the immediate boundaries of the workplace; note that duty of care to staff doesn’t necessarily begin and end at the front door

    • You should also include an assessment of the types of work done on site, the size and nature of your workforce and its shift patterns, employee experience levels, and the likely impact of any holidays/absenteeism on the first-aid arrangements in place

    • Think more expansively about any other potential factors outside of the immediate workplace environment, including:

  • travelling, remote or lone workers
  • the proximity of your premises to emergency services and medical facilities
  • the arrangements in place for any shared occupancy sites
  • first-aid provision for site visitors, non-employees and the general public
  • For additional guidance, research your company’s accident history to help assess the sorts of measures you may need to have in place for future safeguarding

Stress and other work-related ill-health issues


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Although available data shows there has been a general decline in non-fatal workplace injuries across recent decades, the picture for ill health is far more mixed:

    • Self-reported work-related illness (in particular musculoskeletal disorders) show a slight decline for the most part, thanks largely to better awareness, training and legislation regarding the use of adjustable office equipment

    • Conversely, the rate of self-reported work-related stress and other psychological conditions has remained broadly flat over the last twenty years; it remains among the key causes of employee ill-health, unhappiness and absenteeism

    • Severe stress can result either suddenly from a single incident, or from a combination of factors over a longer period of time

    • Some level of stress in the office is normal, and can even be beneficial to both individual and company productivity; however, brief periods of high demand and expectation that strain individuals’ abilities, skills and coping strategies must not last for extended periods

    • Frequent or repeated reports of employee stress are not a feature of any well-functioning work environment

    • Workplace bullying is increasingly commonly reported as a source of stress; in a typical office, bullying is defined as repeated unfavourable treatment of a given individual by one person or a group, in a manner that is unreasonable or inappropriate to the work environment

    • Systematic behaviours intended (or reasonably expected) to intimidate, offend, degrade, humiliate, undermine or threaten all come under the definition of bullying

    • The best ways to reduce and mitigate stress in the office are as follows:

        • Designing and structure roles such that demands are in line with worker abilities

        • Provide suitably frequent breaks and changes of duty to avoid fatigue

        • Provide adequate notice of any major structural or role changes

        • Ensure there is always a suitable path for forwarding concerns, complaints and requests for additional information in an effective manner

        • Involve employees of all levels in consultation around improvements, changes and policy shifts that might impact in any way on their individual roles

        • Always provide all necessary tools, equipment, resources and training to enable employees to carry out their duties effectively and with confidence

        • Have a clearly defined system for addressing and resolving disagreement or conflict

        • Providing adequate employee assistance programmes, including counselling or referral where necessary, as part of a wider culture of support and care for all workers

RESOURCES, DOWNLOADS AND USEFUL READING

HSE office risk assessment tool

http://records.hse.gov.uk/connect.ti/officeriskassess/view?objectId=23667

Comprehensive risk assessment example: working in an office

http://safety.unsw.edu.au/hs-ra-01-working-office-environment

Work-related Musculoskeletal Disorders (WRMSDs) Statistics in Great Britain 2017

http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/musculoskeletal/msd.pdf

OSHA e-tool guideline: how to set up an ergonomic workstation

https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/computerworkstations/index.html

Work-related Stress, Depression or Anxiety Statistics in Great Britain 2017

http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress/stress.pdf

2nd European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks - Questionnaire

http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/pdf/esener-questionnaire.pdf?pdf=esener-questionnaire

HSE enforcement in Great Britain - more information (2017)

http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/enforcement.pdf?pdf=enforcement

Sentencing Council - Definitive guideline to health and safety offences and sentencing (2016/17)

https://www.sentencingcouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/HS-offences-definitive-guideline-FINAL-web.pdf