Chelmsford TUC

In Your Workplace

Promoting a Healthier and Safer Office

Whilst it is true that office workers are not exposed to the same risks experienced by employees in factories, plants or construction sites it is an unwelcome fact that approximately 2000 office workers are absent from work for more than three days every year because of a workplace accident.

This figure conceals the extent of the problem and this page is a brief introduction on how to begin mitigating the potential hazards in the workplace.

It is worth remembering that the overwhelming majority of accidents in the office are avoidable and happen as a result of ’human factors’ - which means that there is ample scope for both employer and employee to take reasonably simple and practicable measures to reduce the risk of accidents.

On this page we have information on the following:

The Risk Assessment

The initial step in evaluating office safety is to conduct a risk assessment. This is a legal obligation under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, and if a company has more than five employees it needs to be written down. The risk assessment should be performed by a ’competent person’, and in the majority of cases will not require a particularly elaborate process.

Employers and safety representatives should start by establishing what are the main hazards in their office.

They should also look at the following areas, all of which require assessing according to health and safety legislation:

  • Noise
  • Hazardous substances
  • Manual handling
  • Display screen equipment
  • Machinery
  • Personal protective equipment

Under the Management of Health and Safety Work Regulations employees have a right to be consulted on safety arrangements and should participate in any risk assessment.

Manual Handling

There are always occasions when clerical staff need to move equipment, furniture or boxes and if you understand the procedures of manual handling this could help prevent unnecessary injury. A strained back may mean several days off sick and could even provide good cause for a personal injury claim. According to the British Safety Council around a third of all accidents in the banking and finance sector which require an absence from work of three days or more are due to poor manual handling.

Some of the basic points to observe whenever you need to lift an object are:

  • Always lift by bending and using your legs, never bend your back which should remain straight at all times during the procedure
  • Never carry more than you feel you can manage
  • Always distribute the weight of the load you are carrying
  • Do not attempt to carry a load with one arm

Like all potential hazards the best way to avoid manual handling injury is to avoid lifting altogether. Consider if a trolley can transport the load instead. But if there is no alternative to manual lifting, legislation obliges an employer to consider the following four factors:

  • The task
  • The load
  • The working environment
  • The individual’s capability

Chemical Hazards

At first glance the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) 1994 Regulations would seem irrelevant to the average office. However, they are applicable to the office environment and oblige an employer to conduct a risk assessment.

Any substances present in your office may appear relatively benign but even in the most basic workplace there will be cleaning materials - such as bleach - that have the potential to injure if used or stored unwisely. Make sure that the people who are exposed to these chemicals understand the dangers posed by the materials and know how to use them correctly.

In the majority of offices there will be inks and toners for photocopiers and printers, which must be installed and disposed of properly. Even such ubiquitous items as paper correction fluid (TIPPEX) or special cleaners for VDU’s or printers must be used correctly. If in doubt check with the supplier to verify the guidelines for use, and adhere to them carefully.

Electrical Appliances

According to HSE figures, in 1993/94, there were at least 10 major injuries and 18 accidents that resulted in more than three days off work. These figures do not include unreported accidents or trivial electric shocks. Do you know that currents as low as 50 milliamps - which is only a fifth of the current used by a 60-watt light bulb - can prove fatal?

Employers have a duty to ensure that electrical equipment is maintained in a safe condition. In certain cases this means performing regular checks. The HSE recommend for a low risk environment like an office, "regular visual inspections rather than testing, should be enough to secure compliance with the legal requirement to maintain electrical equipment". The HSE also advise that employers should observe the following:

  • Overloaded sockets are a potential fire hazard - do provide enough socket outlets to avoid or reduce the use of adaptors
  • Do not use taped joints to connect cables as they lack the necessary mechanical solidity and adequate insulation and are not impervious to liquids. Damaged cables should be replaced completely but if they have to be connected a professional contractor should be hired
  • Do conduct your own visual inspections of plugs and leads and get them repaired if necessary. In particular be vigilant regarding any physical wear to the flex, deterioration of the cord grip at the plug and signs of overheating. Any faults identified should only be rectified by someone competent enough to perform the task effectively and safely
  • Do consider whether you have equipment that requires a more comprehensive inspection and test or because of the installation itself warrants a separate test. For example, office equipment that is frequently relocated or has a lead which experiences substantial twisting may develop an internal fault.
  • Do not ignore obvious warning signs such as faulty switching or intermittent stopping. These may indicate an internal fault such as loose wiring which could cause external metalwork to become live and dangerous
  • Do switch off equipment before unplugging or cleaning
  • Do find out how to deal with an electric shock incident. For further information contact the HSE help line on 0541 545500 quoting reference ISBN 071 7611 23X
  • Do encourage colleagues to report faulty electrical equipment; delay may allow a small fault to become a dangerous one
  • Do ensure that colleagues are aware of these safety precautions
  • Do maintain vigilance on electrical safety; remember complacency is potentially fatal

The HSE provide further advice in their leaflet "Maintaining portable electrical equipment in offices and other low-risk environments".

Remember that the safety representative’s role is to check that your employer is complying with these requirements. A safety representative is not responsible for discharging the employer’s health and safety obligations.

Fire Hazards

If there were a fire, would you know where to locate the fire exits? And after evacuation, where to assemble? Or if you happened to detect a fire, would you know what action to take?

All employers are obliged to assess the risk of fire in their workplace, and if there are more than five people employed, record the results in writing.

The correct number and type of fire extinguisher should be provided and maintained by competent engineers. Only professionals, such as someone from the local fire service should train staff in the use of fire extinguishers.

It is imperative that the right fire extinguisher is deployed against a certain type of fire. Using water on an oil based fire for instance will not only endanger the person attempting to fight the fire but will also help its spread.

A company that maintains a clean and tidy office and does not allow waste paper to accumulate will help reduce the possibility of an office conflagration. Safety representatives should be monitoring such employer practices.

Smoking

The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations implicitly oblige employers to ensure the protection of non-smokers against discomfort caused by tobacco smoke. This necessitates the provision of separate areas for smokers and non-smokers, or banning smoking in rest rooms and rest areas. Also, every workroom must be ventilated with sufficient supplies of fresh and purified air to dilute any contaminants and reduce odour such as tobacco smoke.

Employers are also subject to a common law duty of care to provide a safe place and system of work. This means that employers should act to resolve complaints from employees who believe their health is compromised by working in a smoky environment.

The Labour Research Department report that the anti-smoking group ASH has obtained legal advice that suggests that employers who fail to stop passive smoking are breaking the law. This opinion is based on the COSHH regulations that impose a duty on employers to ensure that the exposure of employees to substances hazardous to health is either prevented or adequately controlled, and that this includes exposure to tobacco smoke in the workplace.

As smoking is a health and safety issue, safety representatives have the right to be consulted prior to any non-smoking policy their employer may plan to implement

Temperature

Employers must ensure that during working hours, the temperature inside buildings (including offices) is "reasonable". Under the "Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992", there is only a minimum temperature stipulated, which is 16 degrees Celsius after the first hour of working, unless the work involves strenuous physical exertion.

Whilst there is no maximum temperature ceiling legislated for, the British Safety Council cite research which concludes that when people experience temperatures in excess of 24 degrees Celsius the propensity for accidents increases and work productivity diminishes. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that the maximum air temperature should be 25 degrees Celsius. Safety Reps’ can use these figures and evidence to negotiate agreements that improve upon the minimum requirements of the law.

The test of what constitutes a "reasonable" temperature is inherently subjective; it would be fair to say that if the majority of the workforce consider they are too hot or too cold for most of the working day, then the temperature is unreasonable.

There exists no legal right to vacate the workplace as a result of extremes of heat and cold, unless there is "serious, imminent and unavoidable danger" (Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations, 1992). But there is no reason why workplace reps should not negotiate a joint agreement on temperature, which sets out what will happen when the minimum and maximum levels are not maintained.

Some suggested measures to achieve satisfactory working temperatures include:

  • Insulating pipes
  • Providing air cooling plant
  • Shading windows and siting desks away from radiators and other hot spots

You should be aware that under The Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act, 1963 in office premises where "members of the public are invited to resort" or any room which constitutes "railway premises", then the minimum temperature of 16 degrees Celsius need not apply unless it is "reasonably practicable".

Lighting

The "Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992" oblige employers to provide workplace lighting that is "suitable and sufficient", which should be natural light, so far is "reasonably practicable".

The regulations do not define what is "suitable and sufficient", but the stress on natural light is justified by research that indicates that people exposed to greater amounts of artificial light tend to be less healthier than those who are not.

Office workers using visual display screen equipment or performing detailed paperwork require a good lighting source without excessive glare. Poor lighting in corridors or on stairs can contribute to slips, trips or falls, whilst too much bright light can detract attention from otherwise obvious hazards. Safety representatives should be aware of these issues and check that their employer is adhering to the HSE guidance.

The HSE’s "Lighting at work booklet (HSG38)" provides further information.

Noise Control

Unfortunately it is not justifiable to control office noise by resorting to wearing ear protectors to drown out the sound of your incessantly ringing telephone.

Seriously, office noise can be a genuine problem as photocopiers, faxes, keyboards and printers can all increase the background level of noise (and the noise that people are forced to converse over) which can heighten stress and in turn can increase the incidence of accidents occurring. A calm and composed office is a healthier and safer office.

Some of the actions, which can mitigate office noise, are:

  • Replace older models with quieter equipment
  • Install special sound reducing hoods on printers
  • Use adjustable volume controls on telephones
  • Position workstations away from the main sources of noise

Space

Overcrowded working conditions can damage health and productivity and increase the risks of fire and other hazards. For these reasons inadequate working space is illegal, and under the "Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992" employers must ensure, as a minimum that 11 cubic metres should be allocated to each person. Remember that 11 cubic metres may not be adequate if the room is cramped with equipment or furniture. The regulations propose that in an average room, where the ceiling is 2.4 metres high, a floor space of 4.6 square metres per person is necessary. If the ceiling is three metres or above, the minimum space decreases to 3.7 square metres.

Display Screen Equipment

Working with visual display units (VDUs) or display screen equipment (DSE) is not generally high risk, but the expansion of information technology usage in the workplace can lead to health problems associated with intensive DSE work. These problems can include musculoskeletal disorders, eye fatigue and mental stress. The regulations are intended to prevent such health problems occurring by promoting good ergonomic design of equipment, furniture, the working environment and job tasks.

Definition of DSE ’user’

The regulations apply to most display screens where there is a ’user’, that is, "employees who habitually use DSE equipment as a significant part of their normal work" - including self-employed persons in an employer’s undertaking (Health and Safety [DSE] Regulations 1992).

There are some specified exclusions, such as systems on board a means of transport, systems mainly for public use, portable systems not in prolonged use, cash registers and window typewriters.

Employers’ Key Duties

Under the Regulations employers are not required to conform to detailed technical specifications but are obliged to follow more general objectives. According to the HSE publication "Working with VDU’s" employers have to:

  • Analyse workstations, and assess and reduce risks

Employers need to examine:

  • The complete workstation including equipment, furniture and the work environment
  • The job and tasks being performed; and
  • Any special needs of individual staff (whose views may be sought as part of the assessment)

Ensure workstations meet minimum requirements

These basic requirements are good features that should be found in a workstation, such as adjustable chairs and suitable lighting. They are set out in the schedule to the Regulations, covering screens, keyboards, desks, chairs, the work environment and software.

Plan work so there are breaks or changes of activity

As the need for breaks depends on the type and intensity of the work, the Regulations require breaks and changes of activity but do not stipulate frequency or duration. The guidance on the regulation expresses general principles, such as frequent breaks are superior to longer but less frequent ones and should be taken before the occurrence of fatigue. Best practice would be for individuals to have some autonomy over the timing of breaks.

On request arrange eye tests, and provide spectacles if special ones are needed. Employees covered by the Regulations can request their employer to provide and pay for an eye and eyesight test, conducted by an optometrist or doctor. This includes additional tests periodically, the optometrist performing the initial test can advise on frequency. Employers only have to pay for spectacles if they are required for the distance at which the screen is viewed i.e. they are prerequisite for the user to operate the VDU.

Health & Safety Training and Information

Employers have to provide training; to make sure employees can operate their DSE and workstation safely, and know how to use it effectively so as to avoid health problems.

Information should also be provided about VDU health and safety. This should include general background information - such as distributing the HSE publication "Working with VDU’s" to relevant staff. It should also cover more specific details of the action taken by the employer to comply with the Regulations, such as measures to reduce risks and the arrangement of breaks.

Remember that these Regulations are minimum requirements and should not be allowed to supplant any existing VDU Agreements, unless improvement is required.

Main Risks From DSE Work

The HSE Guidance to the regulations describe three main risks associated with DSE work:

  • Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI), also called Work-related upper limb disorders (WRULDs) which cause pain in hands, wrists, shoulders, the neck and the back
  • Eye and eyesight effects including headaches, sore eyes and blurred vision; and
  • Stress and physical fatigue
  • Radiation

VDU’s generate radiation, and the latest HSE advice is that the amounts are insufficient to pose a significant risk to health. Whilst the current scientific evidence does not demonstrate any link between miscarriages and birth defects for pregnant women using VDU’s the HSE guidance recognises that expectant mothers can still suffer stress and anxiety when using such equipment. Women who are pregnant or who are planning children and are concerned about using VDU’s should be given the opportunity to discuss their concerns with someone adequately informed of current authoritative scientific information and advice.

Representatives should ensure that, in particular, if pregnant staff are worried about radiation emitted from VDU’s they should be reassured by the employer that their equipment conforms to the approved safety standards (making sure that it is). Such staff should ask their supervisor for, if possible alternative non-VDU duties. Co-operation and understanding from all parties can prevent unnecessary stress on such staff.

General Safety

Slips, trips and falls, many of them occurring when staff are transporting or carrying loads, are the cause of most office accidents. They result from poor floor condition, inappropriate lighting and untidiness.

The employer who adheres to the following points can simply prevent such accidents occurring:

  • Do not allow trailing leads to create tripping hazards
  • Do clear up spillage’s immediately
  • Do replace or repair worn floor coverings, carpets etc
  • Do install handrails on stairways and ensure stairs are properly lit
  • Do not leave obstructions in passageways and corridors

Safety representatives can help by checking whether employers are discharging their health and safety responsibilities by following HSE guidance.

Social Hazards

In terms of workplace stress, bullying and violence there exists no specific legislation. The common law duty of care can be instrumental in establishing liability in cases involving these social hazards. It is important to note that claims for unlawful discrimination could be pursued under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. If bullying includes substantial elements of sexual or racial harassment, the Race Relations Act 1976 may be appropriate for seeking legal redress.

Bullying

According to the British Safety Council, bullying at work is a problem that employer’s ignore at their peril, as employees, often supported by their trade union, have pursued a number of high-profile compensation cases.

Part of addressing the problem seriously is for a company to implement a prominent and clearly defined policy - formulated in consultation with employer and employees - and describing the type of conduct that is unacceptable and the disciplinary action that will result from it.

The HSE guidance on stress clearly states that bullying can precipitate stress and that preventative action must include measures to eradicate bullying where it exists.

Training on the issue of bullying could be requested under section 2(2)(c) of the Health and Safety at Work Act. Bullying could be pursued as a health and safety issue at safety committees; and safety policies could be reassessed under section 2(3) of the HSWA to incorporate a section on bullying and how to address it.

Violence

The HSWA contains no direct reference to workplace violence, but all the general obligations imposed on employers under this legislation are still applicable to the control of this risk. According to the Act, employers must provide:

  • Safe systems of work
  • Safe workplaces
  • A safe working environment
  • Information, instruction and training for staff

The HSE regulations state that employer have a duty to provide a suitable and sufficient assessment of any risks to the health and safety of their employees, and according to the HSE this includes violence if there is a significant risk.

Under the HSE’s Management Regulations employers must, in consultation with safety representatives, formulate procedures to be followed in the event of serious or imminent danger at work. These procedures should incorporate plans to address serious or imminent danger caused by violence at work.

If safety reps’ are concerned then they should raise the problem with management and negotiate a suitable agreement dealing with the issue. If management fail to recognise that a problem exists, then reps could distribute a short questionnaire, discuss the issue with constituents who may be affected, keep raising the issue at meetings and request constituents to record and report any incidents.

Remember that RIDDOR (Reporting of Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations, 1995) require employers to report physical injuries due to assaults arising from, or related to, work to the HSE.

For further information on Violence , you might like to see our Violence at Work page.

We also have a page on Domestic Violence a Workplace Issue.

Stress

The HSE’s guidance on preventing workplace stress, "Stress at work - a guide for employers" [HS (G) 116] states that:

"Ill health resulting from stress caused at work has to be treated the same as ill health due to other, physical causes present in the workplace. This means that employers do have a legal duty to take reasonable care to ensure that health is not placed at risk through excessive and sustained levels of stress arising from the way work the way people deal with each other at their work or from the day-to-day demands placed on their workforce"

Safety reps can deploy their extensive rights under the "Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977" to investigate and pursue problems of work-related stress in the same way that they investigate any other workplace hazard.

For further information on Stress, you might like to see our page onThe Reality of Stress.

Checklist of Basic Requirements

The HSE list the following basic requirements in respect of workplace health and safety:

  • Toilets - provide sufficient toilets for employees and keep them clean and in good order
  • Washing - provide hot and cold (or warm) running water, soap and towels or other means of drying
  • Drinking water - provide a supply of wholesome drinking water
  • Temperature - the room temperature should be at least 16 degrees Celsius where people work sitting down
  • Cleanliness - Maintain the workplace in a clean state

 Lighting - Make there is adequate light (preferably natural light) to avoid problems of visual fatigue

  • Space - provide a minimum of 11 cubic metres for each person permanently occupying a workplace
  • Ventilation - in most offices being able to open the windows will suffice.

Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)

RSI’s, also called work related upper limb disorders (WRULD), describe a number of serious or potentially disabling physical conditions. RSI can occur where the same task is performed repeatedly, such as when operating a keyboard continuously. A Health & Safety Executive -funded study of more than 3,500 keyboard operators found that 55% of workers studied had had problems with RSI at some time.

HSE guidance on the Health & Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 emphasises three primary risks from VDU work:

  • The occurrence of pain in hands, wrists, shoulders, the neck and the back
  • Eye and eyesight effects including headaches, sore eyes and blurred vision; and
  • Stress and physical fatigue

A study commissioned by the insurance company, Norwich Union Healthcare concluded that the expansion of new technology may be harmful to health and as a result the number of work related illnesses might increase dramatically over the forthcoming decade. As information technology becomes increasingly pervasive in offices, this could lead to a further rise in RSI’s, bad backs and eye strain which may result in greater absenteeism, lower staff morale and impaired productivity.

Carpal tunnel syndrome, tenosynovitis, tendonitis and writer’s cramp are some examples thought to be caused by tasks that rely upon repetitive or rapid movements which exert considerable strain on muscles and tendons. Many of the conditions are not officially recognised as being work-related and so are not classified as industrial injuries in many cases. This means that industrial injuries benefit is not payable, and many sufferers can experience difficulty in receiving compensation for damages. RSI awareness is growing and safety representatives need to be conscious of the issue even if it is not specifically covered by legislation.

For employers to fulfil their material and ethical obligations, they need to protect their staff from the risks of suffering RSI. This will necessitate suitable and sufficient risk assessments on a regular basis, the provision of adequate resources and the proper training of staff.

Regulation 4 of the Health & Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 states that the work of VDU users must be arranged to permit periodic breaks or changes of activity to reduce exposure to the VDU. The RSI Association recommends that a break should be taken from intensive VDU work every 30 minutes.

Measures that can help the prevention of RSI

  • The provision of suitable ergonomic work environment and equipment
  • Regular and frequent breaks
  • Restructure jobs so as to reduce repetitive movements
  • Reduce the social isolation that screen use can involve (with regard to VDU use)
  • Train workers before starting tasks in the ergonomic principles that mitigate the risk of developing RSI
  • Establish procedures in the workplace for reporting the symptoms of RSI as soon as they are detected
  • Urge all workers who suspect they may be affected to consult their own doctor as well as company doctors
  • Encourage exercise programmes away from the workstation
  • Provide for regular reviews of equipment and working practices

If you find using a keyboard difficult, are currently unemployed, live in Essex, have an upper limb disorder, wish to return to work or undertake further training, read on, we can help you.

Keyboards are no longer a barrier for people with upper limb disorders, so if you are actively seeking work, or wish to learn new skills, "Talk yourself into a Job", could be what you have been looking for.

The GMB, working in partnership with Rosalind Lawless and others to prevent and/or minimise the effects of work related upper limb disorders, have organised courses on:

  • Dragon Naturally Speaking Voice Recognition Software.
  • Risk Assessments and Training in the Workplace regarding Work Related Upper Limb Disorders for employees and employers.
  • Voice Recognition Training for the Unemployed.
  • Voice Recognition Training for the Employed.

Training is offered one day per week, for approximately seven weeks, in a dedicated training room which has been equipped to meet the needs of clients. The course runs from 10.00-15.15 with 45 minutes for lunch. The training room is situated in the GMB office, directly opposite Chelmsford Council offices in Duke Street.


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