Preventing injuries and risk management in the office

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There are various types of hazards that may present in offices, and these should be considered during the hazard identification stage. They include:

Physical hazards

Physical hazards are those which lead to musculoskeletal disorders, such as poorly designed chairs that do not provide the user with adequate back support; poorly designed jobs and tasks that demand prolonged work in a fixed posture; filing cabinets that tend to tip when heavily laden top drawers are open; and tripping hazards.

Hazards for manual tasks in an office environment can be broadly broken into 6 main categories classified as either direct or indirect:


  1. Actions and posture (this includes repetitive movements, awkward (eg cramped or stretching) and static postures.
    Examples of tasks within the office environment where actions and postures can be a problem and include: data entry, screen/desk based work and accessing storage space.
  2. Forces and loads (including weight, size, shape and characteristics of the load, poor hand grips) – this is usually less of an issue in office work.
    Examples of tasks within the office environment where force and load is a problems and include lifting and carrying boxes of photocopying paper; moving office furniture and equipment such as computers and printers; handling large files, books and legal documents, and opening and closing filing cabinet drawers.
  3. Vibration eg upper limb or whole body (eg through driving).


  1. Environment such as glare or reflections from screens; and cool, draughty workstations, inadequate space (cramped workstations), slippery floors, loud noises, poor light.
  2. Systems of Work such as the need to perform excessive workloads under pressure; lack of satisfaction from a job where there is inadequate recognition of work performed; and repetitive work and insufficient task variety, long shifts.
  3. Worker characteristics (skills, knowledge, clothing, cultural/language barriers).

More information on each of these hazards can be found in the manual task code of practice

Psychosocial and organisational hazards

This includes hazards such as stress, bullying, violence and aggression.

General safety hazards

Hazard identification

This process involves identifying all situations or events that could give initial or further rise to injury or illness.

This process should be applied at all three levels of prevention against incidents, injuries and illnesses, including:

  • Primary Prevention Level - before incident, injury or illness presents (proactive stage)
  • Secondary Prevention Level - during or soon after an incident, injury or illness presents (early reactive stage)
  • Tertiary Prevention Level -after an incident, injury or illness and where some degree of impairment or dysfunction presents (late reactive stage).

Working at the primary (or proactive) prevention level involves consideration of potential incident, injury or illness that may present, and the situations and events that could give rise to the incident, injury or illness (for example, prolonged bending over a low desk during a collating task carried out several times a week at work may give rise to lower back pain, and subsequently, the development of a work-related musculoskeletal disorder).

When undertaking a hazard identification process there are several recommended steps.  These steps have been incorporated and described in the Code of Practice: Occupational Safety and Health in the Public Sector . This document provides good guidance to all workplaces and not just those in the public sector. The steps include:

  • Examining records, analysing data, and identifying trends:
    • of incidents, near misses, injuries and illnesses in the workplace;
    • of reported hazards
    • of data from similar workplaces;
  • Consultation
    • consulting supervisors, managers and employees of various areas/departments, especially high risk ones.
    • consulting employees and safety and health representatives and committees (if any);
    • ensuring that there is a system for employees to report hazards and work-related symptoms;
    • consulting with other public sector agencies, industry associations or other similar businesses;
    • consulting relevant codes of practice and guidance notes;
  • Inspections
    • developing a hazard checklist;
    • carrying out proactive and reactive inspections of the workplace;

The hazard identification process may range from simple checklists for specific equipment, such as workstations, to a more open-ended appraisal of a group of work related processes.  Generally, a combination of methods will provide the most effective results. Agencies may wish to introduce a job safety analysis tool to assist them in the identification and control of task hazards.

Risk assessment and sources of risks

This process determines whether there are any risks associated with the identified hazards. This generally involves consideration of the nature of exposure to the hazards, including the likelihood, frequency and level of exposure, pattern of exposure (continuous or intermittent) and adequacy of any existing risk control measures.

The likelihood of the exposure leading to injury or disease

Data from WorkSafe WA, Comcare Australia, Office of the Australian Safety and Compensation Council/Safe Work Australia, journals and texts will indicate the likelihood of injury or illness arising from different types of safety and health hazards in the workplace.

Typically the common injuries include:

  • musculoskeletal disorders of the back, neck and upper limbs;
  • minor injuries due to cuts, trips or falls or being hit by an object; and​
  • stress-related conditions.

The employer should assess the likelihood of these or other injuries at their workplace.

The frequency and duration of exposure

How often and how long employees may be exposed to a particular hazard should be estimated or measured by consulting with employees, looking at duty roster and observing employees performing the work. Another indication of frequency may be the amount of resources used, for example, if a staff member goes through a box of 1000 staples in a week then they it possible to predict that they have performed the stapling task close to 1000 times. This can also be applied to most resources, however it is important to take note if the task is done electronically (eg via the photocopier doing the task) or manually.

Who may be affected

Determining tasks and areas that may be affected by a particular hazard can help direct limited resources to those areas where the most effect can be obtained from control measures. Consider how many staff are affected by the hazard and the consequence that may arise from the hazard.

What to consider when controlling risk

A range of measures should be considered when controlling the risk including elimination, substitution, isolation, engineering, administration and personal protective equipment

Sources of risk

Hazardous manual task risk factors may stem from various sources. Addressing the sources of risks is the most effective way of controlling the risks. The sources of risks may be varied and can include:

  • work area design and lay-out (eg inadequate space for task type);
  • the nature of the item, equipment or tool (eg poorly designed chairs);
  • the nature of the load (eg heavy load);
  • the working environment (eg cool temperatures); and
  • systems of work, work organisation and work practices (eg low job control).

Controls and review

This process determines and implements appropriate measures to control risk.  Factors that are assessed as posing an increased risk are required by legislation to be controlled so far as is ‘reasonably practicable’. ‘Reasonably practicable’ in this case means you need to consider:

  • the likelihood of the hazard or risk eventuating;
  • the degree of harm that would result if the hazard or risk eventuated;
  • what the person concerned knows, or ought reasonably to know, about the hazard or risk and any ways of eliminating or reducing the hazard or risk;
  • the availability and suitability of ways to eliminate or reduce the hazard or risk; and
  • the cost of eliminating or reducing the hazard or risk.

Control measures should be implemented to eliminate or reduce the risk of people being injured or harmed, and to ensure the measures are monitored and reviewed on an ongoing basis.

Hierarchy of control

There is a hierarchy or preferred order of control measures ranging from the most effective to the least effective.  Eliminating the hazard has been established as being the most effective, whilst administrative controls and the use of personal protective equipment, as being the least effective. In many instances, a combination of several control measures are required or would be most appropriate to control the risk to a reasonably practicable level.  For example, training employees in lifting techniques alone would not sufficiently reduce manual handling risks when transporting heavy loads of paper between departments. Providing suitable trolleys (engineering control), redesigning the path of travel to ensure that it is appropriate for trolley use (engineering control) and providing risk management training for hazardous manual handling tasks (administrative) would be more effective.

Under the Code of practice: Occupational safety and health in the public sector, the preferred order of control is:

1.    Elimination – removing the hazard or hazardous work practice from the workplace by redesigning the work process, job, equipment, tool and environment. 

For example:

  • organising for photocopying paper to be delivered where it will be used rather than double handling the load from a different loading/storage location; and
  • using a photocopier machine to sort, staple and punch documents.

2.    Substitution – replacing materials, equipment or processes with less hazardous ones.

For example:

  • replacing hand-held phone equipment with headsets;
  • substituting hazardous cleaning agents with non-hazardous ones; and
  • using keystrokes rather than the mouse, if mouse use is aggravating a condition.

3.   Isolation – isolating or separating the hazard or hazardous work practice from people involved in the work or people in the general work area.  

For example:

  • locating fax machines, photocopiers and printers together in a dedicated room with good ventilation, away from employees; and
  • using barriers or screens to prevent potentially aggressive visitors gaining access to staff areas.

4.    Engineering controls – applying, modifying or redesigning tools, equipment, furniture or the environment.  Engineering controls may involve the provision of mechanical aids, barriers, guarding, ventilation or insulation to prevent employees being exposed to a hazard.

For example:

  • using trolleys to transport files between department, rather than manually handling the files;
  • installing acoustic shock prevention devices in telephone sets;
  • installing mechanical winder or electric controls to prevent the need for pushing and pulling the sections of heavy compactus systems; and
  • modifying lighting to reduce glare.

5.    Administrative controls – this may involve establishing policies, procedures and work practices designed to reduce an employee’s exposure to a risk. It may also relate to the provision of specific training and supervisory practices.

For example:

  • providing fire safety training;
  • implementing incident reporting and action plans;
  • advising employees against performing continuous keyboard work for long periods, and increasing task variety;
  • implementing or improving customer contact and dispute resolution procedures; and
  • implementing job rotation.

6.    Personal protective equipment – this may involve using appropriate protective clothing and, footwear  when other control measures are not practicable.  

For example:

  • using gloves when handling cleaning solvents; and
  • using safety glasses, gloves, aprons and dust masks when clearing out dusty storerooms.
Controlling hazards at the source
  • Job design and work organisation
  • Design of office and workstation lay-out
  • Design of equipment and furniture
  • Design and characteristics of handled loads ​
  • Modifying environmental factors
  • Other safety controls
  • Administrative controls- training and instruction

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