How safe are your company's offices? Rosalind Benjamin gives some guidelines on assessing and removing dangers.

How safe are your company's offices? Rosalind Benjamin gives some guidelines on assessing and removing dangers.

Accident statistics indicate that offices are the safest workplace environment. But to assume your office is hazard-free and to ignore health, safety and welfare issues, exposes both your employees and your organisation to unnecessary risks. Poor management of health and safety can result in accidents, which in turn can have a detrimental effect on your business in terms of wasted time, poor morale, sick pay, compensation awards, training new workers and increased insurance premiums. There may also be criminal consequences for your company and for specific individuals should the accident lead to prosecution by the enforcing authority.

The UK Health and Safety Commission (HSC) reported that, in the period 1994/5 to 1998/9, there were 13 fatalities in office-based industries and 1,941 major accidents. There were also 6,389 accidents which involved spells off work longer than three days. The figures are based on the reports to local authorities under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995. However, the UK Office for National Statistics' Labour Force Survey indicates that employers in office-based industries only report 17% of non-fatal injuries. The true level of accidents is far higher than it appears - testing the assumption that an office is a very safe work environment.

How do you go about reducing the possibility of accidents? An effective health and safety management system helps to control the risks. It also helps your organisation to discharge its statutory obligations. Such a system needs to be structured. It should have a framework based on sound policy and organisational structure, together with a routine of inspections, assessments and reporting procedures. Regular auditing will ensure that you don't miss any new risks resulting from changes in the workplace or in legislation.

As well as your offices, the workplace will include kitchens, toilets and access routes. Health and safety management must also take account of all the work equipment, fixtures and fittings provided within the offices and the office environment in terms of temperature, lighting and ventilation. Office safety management should include the electrical safety of portable appliances as well as the fixed electrical equipment and the distribution system.

A large number of regulations apply. For example, office furniture should conform to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) guidance Seating at Work (HSG 57) and the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire Safety) Regulations 1988.

Assessing risks is fundamental to health and safety management, and assessments are statutorily required. The target-setting nature of modern legislation requires an employer to establish the level of risk in the workplace and how effectively existing measures control it. You should also carry out assessments whenever new risks are introduced into the office, following an accident or incident, or whenever it is apparent that the existing assessment is no longer valid. Based on the findings, you should take appropriate action, which may include reviewing the assessment at a future date. It is a reviewing and reappraising approach to risk management.

Dealing with dangers
Nearly half of all major accidents in the office are caused by slipping and tripping on a level surface. This highlights the need for regularly inspecting the workplace and the importance of good health and safety housekeeping by all employees. All findings of all inspections should be recorded.

Having a system for reporting defects ensures that any defects noted during the inspections or reported by staff are rectified. You also need maintenance procedures for the workplace and the equipment to maintain high standards. The statutory requirements are detailed in the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992.

Falls from a height have caused the most office fatalities. They also accounted for 25% of all major accidents in the five years up to 1998/9. Falls can result from opening high windows, maintaining light fittings or accessing high shelves. Ideally, you should avoid employees having to work at a height. If they do need to reach high places, you must provide appropriate access equipment and ensure this is used only by authorised employees. Such equipment must be inspected on a regular basis and defects in maintenance rectified. Storage within offices can present hazards. Heavy items on high shelves present manual handling and access problems. Items may fall and strike employees. Unorganised storage can produce overloading of shelves and racking, and tripping hazards due to objects on the floor or obstructed lighting.

As regards the building itself, you may need to address issues such as drinking water quality and the management of asbestos. Sick Building Syndrome is a common term associated with poorly managed and maintained offices. Tell-tale symptoms experienced by staff may include dry, itchy skin, stuffy nose, headaches and lethargy.

Problems can often be attributed to poorly-maintained air conditioning equipment, poor levels of lighting and ventilation or a smoky or dusty environment. The HSE provides guidance in their leaflet: How to deal with Sick Building Syndrome (HSG 132).

Most maintenance operations in offices, such as cleaning, electrical work and general repairs, are carried out by contractors. Your organisation is responsible for the safety of their work. You need to scrutinise any contractor employed for health and safety competence, examining the health and safety policies, insurance documentation, risk assessments and method statements. When contractors are on site, you can apply further control by issuing permits to work for higher risk activities.

Consult, train and communicate
Consulting employees on health and safety matters not only promotes a good safety culture, but is also a statutory requirement. Regular meetings between employees' representatives and management provide the opportunity to discuss matters of concern, changes that may affect workplace safety and future training courses. Communication should be two-way. Management can inform employees and also receive feedback to assist in formulating programmes for any health and safety improvements.

All employees should be capable of carrying out their duties safely. You need to ensure staff are adequately trained before authorising them to undertake any task. This starts with induction training on the first day of employment. Training should cover a whole range of issues, from using office equipment through to action to take in the event of a fire. A training needs assessment programme and an annual review of training needs can help identify any shortfall in employee competence.

Managers should be able to provide answers to health and safety questions -external helplines can give advice. The list of responsibilities and the regulations behind them may appear never ending. The key is to treat health and safety as any other management function and implement appropriate systems with adequate resources. It is not a matter of managing safety when time permits.

An effective health and safety management system provides a structure of inspections and assessments so that there is continuing attention to safety issues. Failure to control risks to health and safety in the office environment can have a marked effect on the business of the organisation. It may have an even more far-reaching effect on individuals in view of the proposed reforms to the law on involuntary manslaughter.
Rosalind Benjamin is managing consultant, Ark Health & Safety Ltd, Tel: 020 7556 7019, e-mail: .
HSE helpline number: 08701 545500.

General risk assessments
The Management of Health and Safety Regulations 1999 require companies with five or more employees to have written risk assessments. Assessments must be suitable and sufficient, identifying where the existing measures fail to control the risks adequately.

  • Fire risk assessments: - These are required by the Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations 1997 (as amended), and concentrate on managing fire risks in the workplace, for example covering causes of fire, means for giving warning, means of escape, fire fighting provisions and staff training.

  • Manual handling assessments: - Manual handling is a common feature in offices. For example, staff often carry boxes of stationery or move equipment. Injuries associated with handling, lifting and carrying are the most common (35%) of office injuries requiring more than three days off work. The Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 place specific^ duties on employers to avoid hazardous manual handling wherever reasonably practicable. Where avoidance is not reasonably practicable, you must carry out an assessment. Providing mechanical aids, redesigning tasks, and training are possible ways of controlling the risks.

  • Display screen equipment (DSE) assessments: Repetitive strain injuries, work related upper limb disorders, eye strain and headaches are common complaints resulting from work with display screen equipment. The Display Screen Equipment Regulations 1992 require workstation assessments to identify risks to DSE users and operators. You must give staff training and offer them eye and eyesight tests that may need to be routinely repeated.

  • First aid assessments: - The Health and Safety (First-Aid) Regulations 1981 require you to provide equipment and facilities which are adequate and appropriate for administering first aid to employees. You need to carry out an assessment as to what you need. This should take account of the work activity, access to treatment and the type and number of employees. Minimum requirements will be a suitably stocked first aid container and a person appointed to take charge.

  • Hazardous substance assessments: - Offices may contain hazardous substances in the form of cleaning chemicals or substances used for reprographic processes. You must control these substances in line with the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 1999, which require you to carry out an assessment.

    Health and Safety in the Office

  • Provide and maintain a safe office environment
  • Assess risks
  • Look at work at height issues
  • Deal with building management issues
  • Control contractors
  • Consult employees
  • Train your people
  • Provide health and safety information