7 Common Health and Safety Risks in the Office and How to Mitigate Them

Offices are often thought of as relatively benign places, compared to more manual environments, such as factory floors or construction sites. But they hold many risks of their own to employees’ health and safety. Be sure of keeping your most valuable asset safe and well by ensuring you don’t overlook these seven common office-based risks.

Lone working

Lone working is not just about manual operatives working in remote or isolated locations. Unless you work in a building that is occupied 24 hours a day, there will always be a chance that someone is in the workplace on their own, either at the start or end of the day. If this happens on a regular basis, for any significant length of time, you must have a system in place to manage these periods of lone working. Otherwise, if something unexpected occurs, such as the employee being taken ill or having an accident, both the employee and the business are put at risk unnecessarily.

There are several options to consider depending on the size of your organisation and the budget you have. If your business already contracts with a security firm to protect the building outside normal working hours, consider negotiating an agreement with them to maintain a presence until more than one person arrives at the office. If your budget doesn’t stretch to private security, implement a process of your own. One solution would be to implement a rota for a manager to always be on call, making it their responsibility to know who is in the office on their own at the start and end of the day and make regular contact with them during these times. Alternatively, the onus could be on the employee to always agree any period of lone working in advance with their line manager, who is then responsible for monitoring them during this time. Or you could eliminate the risk altogether by making it a policy to prohibit lone working by controlling working hours and access to the workplace.

Infection

Work days lost to sickness are a considerable cost to the business and a threat to productivity. The workplace itself is a source of infection, and you can reduce the risk of causing absence in your own employees by implementing control measures to ensure the environment is clean and safe. Typical sources of infection at workstations are keyboards, mouses, and telephones. Provide employees with cleaning supplies, such as desk wipes, to keep their own equipment sterile, and encourage them to do so on a regular basis. Take care that any supplies are not hazardous, and provide product data sheets and guidance on how to use them safely.

Introduce a culture that dictates employees take responsibility for their own cleanliness at work; provide hand sanitizer to encourage hand washing. If employees share desks, they need to understand the impact on their colleagues of not cleaning equipment after use. Show that the business is committed to a healthy workplace by carrying out regular deep cleaning of carpets and any areas likely to be a high infection risk.

Slips and trips

The typical office is littered with potential trip hazards. Employees must be reminded of their responsibility to keep the working environment safe. Managers should regularly inspect the workplace to ensure walkways are free from obstruction and look out for damaged carpets or edging strips. Particular care should be taken during wet weather when uncarpeted or tiled floors can become slippery. Any hazardous conditions should be highlighted with appropriate signs and, if necessary, areas isolated until made safe.

Don’t neglect employees’ workstations. Trailing cables are one of the most common causes of injury and damage to equipment. Conduct regular checks under desks and make sure all cables are stowed in cable management ducts or tied off. Consider the position of under-desk pedestal units with sliding drawers; uneven floors can cause drawers to open unintentionally, creating a trip hazard.

Workstations

Desk areas must be configurable to allow for individuals to customize the position of their chair and screen as a minimum. You must ensure that all employees are trained to set up any workstation to suit their unique needs. Serious long-term musculoskeletal conditions can be caused by prolonged incorrect posture. Employees should complete self-assessments of the suitability of their workstation and you should consider providing additional supporting equipment, such as footrests or anti-glare screens, where necessary.

You should also conduct tests of lighting levels and temperature in different sections of the workplace to ensure they are acceptable and consistent. If you have a climate control system, check for drafts or areas of extreme heat or cold.

If employees use display screens for extended periods then provision should be made for vision tests on a regular basis. Short breaks or varied duties should be available to ensure employees are not using screens continuously for more than two to three hours in a row.

Manual handling

Office workers don’t typically need to do any heavy lifting, but it’s a sensible approach to provide some training or guidance material to employees. Even lifting a box of stationery can cause injury if done without due care.

You should also consider that human beings have a tendency to make bad decisions. It’s not unheard of for injuries to be sustained by lifting heavy office chairs (even those that have castors and could simply be pushed) or trying to move heavy furniture without proper equipment. Prohibit this type of activity and bring in professional help to facilitate any office moves; don’t try to cut costs by asking employees to assist.

Stress

Any number of factors can contribute to stress in the workplace. The most common are workload, environmental conditions and personal circumstances outside work. Managers should have regular one to one meetings with all workers and be trained to understand the symptoms of stress and early warning signs that someone may be suffering. Another way to monitor stress levels in your business is to undertake an employee survey.

It is a worthwhile investment for any business to provide support mechanisms for employees experiencing stress, even if not caused directly by the workplace. An independent employee assistance scheme can provide advice on a wide range of issues, such as financial matters or personal relationships. Absence due to stress can be long-term and recurring, so it is always preferable to deal with underlying causes, rather than be left dealing with the symptoms when it’s too late to prevent them.

Fire

Regulatory requirements are such that any business is compelled to have adequate controls and equipment in place to ensure employee safety in the event of a fire. This includes a provision of guidance on evacuation procedures, regular testing of equipment such as alarms and extinguishers, and adequate signs guiding occupants of buildings to fire exits. You must ensure all these things are in place and well publicized. You should also ensure that all visitors have a short induction so they are aware of local procedures and muster points in the event of a fire.

Practice makes perfect when it comes to evacuation procedures. Ensure you do more than simply test alarms. Drill sessions should be arranged a minimum of annually and should not be communicated in advance to the general populace. This will mean employees’ knowledge and understanding of evacuation procedures is properly tested. Feedback should be given to everyone after the event to explain what went well and what didn’t.

Put the necessary control measures in place to mitigate these seven key areas of risk and you will protect the health and safety of your employees. The result will be a lower absence rate, greater productivity and increased employee satisfaction. You will also minimize the risk of an incident resulting in serious injury to an employee, which could, in turn, mean reputational or financial damage to the business. Look after your employees and they will look after you.

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