Strategies and solutions - Office safety

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There are many different factors in offices that can cause injury to staff. Specific hazards which may occur in office environments are discussed with ways to assess and control the risk factors.

Systems of work

Task variety

It is important to include task variety in the design of work. This is best done by mixing intensive keyboard use and other computer use with a variety of other work. It is important that the different tasks involve a change in posture and muscles used to perform the work.  As the working day progresses it becomes more important to provide work with different mental demands, changes in posture and more frequent work breaks.

Keyboard skills

Where the user does not have good typing skills, the risk of sustaining a muscle strain can increase as the operator may frequently or for a sustained period bend their neck to see the keyboard or the document they are typing from.  When beginning to use computers, it is important to learn basic typing skills. This can be achieved through short but frequent training with the use of tutorial software programs. This approach can equally apply to two finger typists who may have developed a reasonable knowledge of the keyboard but cannot operate it without looking at the keys. This method of work is habitual and a concerted effort is needed to help with the development of new work methods.

Computer settings

A great way of reducing the amount of repetition is to look at your computer settings, setting up favourites and using short cuts. Changing your settings so it goes to your most frequently used files for saving document greatly reduces the number of clicks of the mouse and therefore overall repetitions.

Breaks

Rest or work breaks can range from short pauses to defined breaks such as lunch.  Answering the phone or collecting a document from the printer are short breaks that provide an opportunity for muscles that have been active in keyboard or mouse use to rest and recover and muscles which have been fixed during this use to move.  Where a variety of alternative tasks are not available, it is important to have more work breaks away from the task. The length of these and how often they are taken depends on the work, the person and other factors. Frequent short pauses are preferable to infrequent longer pauses.

The use of exercises during breaks can provide a variety of changes in posture and movement for muscles during periods of intense work.).  These exercises may be useful where there are no alternative tasks available.  Exercises should not be used to replace other controls listed above. Exercises should be gentle stretches which provide rest for frequently used muscles and movement for muscles which have been static. The best exercise is usually to get up from a seated position and move around.

Work adjustment periods

It is important that during employee absences, their work is not left to pile up awaiting their return. This situation can cause an overload that can increase the risk of (Workplace Musculoskeletal Disorders) WMSDs and loss of job satisfaction.  Where employees are new to keyboard use and other office-based tasks or are returning from an absence of several weeks, a period of adjustment may be required. The adjustment period will depend on the individual, the equipment, the environment and the duration of computer-based work involved. Where there is highly repetitive work, such as keyboard and mouse use, adjustment may be achieved through reduced work loads or provision of a greater variety of tasks than usual with a gradual reintroduction of highly repetitive or demanding work.

Storage and moving systems

Storage system design should focus on the nature of items to be stored and the capabilities and limitations of the people required to use the system.
Storage facilities need to be maintained and reviewed periodically to ensure that they are functioning safely and are being used to their best advantage. They should be easily accessible to relevant staff and organised so that handling risk is minimised.

The storage of cleaning products is also important. Each product should be stored in an appropriate container and clearly labelled with the product name. It is easy to forget that common cleaning products can also be harmful chemical substances if an accident occurs.

Equipment and documents often move in and out of the office faster than people can deal with them. This can make the process of storing them awkward. It can be useful to set aside an area for items like cartons waiting to be packed or unpacked. This avoids the use of aisles and passages as a temporary storage space.

Shelving systems

Users need to have clear access to shelving systems and the items stored on them. To achieve the required level of access, redesign or the provision of additional equipment will sometimes be required. For example, large shelving systems often have a top level of shelving that is above head height, or shelves may be too deep, requiring staff to bend and reach in. Redesign of the shelving and relocation of items between knuckle and shoulder height should be considered. If this is not practicable, some of the following controls should be considered:

  • a safe means of climbing up to the required level; and
  • an intermediate support point to enable lifting or lowering in stages as users step to higher levels.

Climbing shelves to access higher shelves is an unsafe practice and is a risk that requires control. Options for control of this risk may include providing small platforms on rollers (as often found in libraries), small sets of step ladders, platform ladders and rolling ladders. Steps should be stable and platforms and hand rails are required where the work includes access to high storage.

If you work at heights you must comply with the requirements of the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations, 1996.

General principles of storage areas

  • Large or heavy items should be stored at easily accessible heights to minimise the demands of handling. Frequently handled items should be placed within easy reach. Items carried on a trolley should remain on the trolley while in storage.
  • Smaller, lightweight and infrequently handled items may be stored in the lower or higher areas of a storage system.
  • It should be easy to place items into the storage unit and take them out.
  • The storage system should accommodate the size and shape of the item being stored. For example, dividers will secure files stored in shelving and improve access to them. Documents or small publications may be stored in suspension files or folders, making them easier to handle.

The desktop

As a storage system, the layout of equipment and resources on a desk should be arranged so that they are within reach. Their proximity to the user should be prioritised according to the nature or the item and how it is used.

Reach capacity

The desktop can be broken up into three broad sectors according to the capacity of the seated individual to reach to each sector.

The optimum reach sector is where the hands operate for most of the time.  Equipment is usually brought into and out of this area as different tasks are performed. For example, when a typing task is finished, the keyboard is moved to one side to make room for a writing activity, or the chair is moved to a different part of the desk so the hands can function close to the body. Frequently used items, such as the keyboard, mouse or telephone, should be used in the optimum reach sector.

The maximum reach sector involves an area that extends beyond optimum reach where, using the shoulder and arm, the user can reach with comfort. This sector should be where the hands retrieve and deposit equipment and materials on an intermittent basis. Reference manuals are an example of what can be kept in the maximum forward reach zone, but not in a high reach zone, where excessive force may be required to lift them down.

The outer reach sector involves extended reach where bending forward and even rising from the chair gains extra distance to reach an item. This area is usually only suitable for occasional reaches.

Where possible, layout should be reorganised to bring frequently used objects and nearby objects closer to the user. Alternatively, work can be relocated altogether to another desk or bench for better access. Locating rarely used items out of reach, requiring the user to get up from the chair, may encourage changes of posture.

In/out trays

These trays can usually be placed in the maximum reach zone and stacked on top of one another or placed side by side. Placing the trays closer to the operator helps improve posture and movements by limiting the need for extreme reaching.

Drawers

Mobile drawer units provide greater flexibility in the layout of a workstation to provide adequate space for the user’s legs. Drawers need to be within comfortable reach and easy to use by moving the chair directly in front of them.  Under desk drawers should not be used for the storage of heavy objects.

Filing cabinets

Some common problems and solutions with the use of filing cabinets include:

  • tightly packed files – may contribute to muscle soreness and holding awkward postures. Clear labelling and periodic review of the contents can help overcome overcrowding. Other means of storage include arch files. Offsite storage can be used to reduce overcrowding;
  • access to lower drawers – users should use their legs to squat or alternatively adopt a kneeling posture in preference to bending; and
  • where a cabinet is not level, the drawers may be difficult to open or close or even remain in an open position when not in use. This can be hazardous. Small packing pieces can help to level the cabinet. Use a spirit level to make sure the filing cabinet is level.

Instability of a cabinet when more than one drawer is open at once can result in the whole cabinet falling onto the user. Prevention measures may involve attaching the filing cabinet to the wall or floor or purchasing filing cabinets which allow only one drawer to be open at a time.

The computer

Computers are another form of storage system within the office and are the main means of generating and manipulating reference information. Their use as a storage base may lead to a reduction in physical storage requirements in offices, as well as improved efficiency in finding, reading and obtaining data. Backing-up of data is an essential component of effective information storage, so that in the event of a problem or equipment failure, the information is not lost or corrupted.

Compactus or mobile storage

The compactus is a very efficient way to use storage space. There are several issues associated with the use of this equipment including the weight of the compactus, maintenance of rails, where items are stored within the compactus and ensuring people cannot get trapped in the compactus.

Opening and closing the compactus

The size and placement of winding mechanisms or handles to open or close a compactus should not present a trapping hazard for hands. They are often designed to be used by one hand. Placing a second hand on the unit to help exert additional pushing or pulling force can result in it being caught in between the units. The compactus should not require significant force to operate the handle. Proper installation and regular maintenance of the unit should ensure ease of operation. For large sets of frequently used compactuses electric controls remove the need to exert force to open and shut the compactus.

With a large compactus it may be possible for a person to become trapped between the shelves while it is being operated by others. Also, the raised platform or rails can create a tripping hazard as the individual moves into and out of the units. Consideration needs to be given to the operating and lock-out procedures, adequate lighting, signage and flooring.

Lockers

Often lockers are used to store valuable equipment or materials. The location of each item in a locker should be decided according to the size and weight of the item and the frequency of its use.

Photocopying and printing paper

Boxes of paper are often stacked on the floor in offices. They should be placed in a dedicated storage area close to the printer or photocopier. The size and weight of boxes may create a risk of injury from manual handling. Many suppliers now provide paper in boxes of 5 or 6 reams rather than 8 to 10 reams. This has reduced the risks from manual handling by reducing the weight and size of each box so that they can be handled closer to the body. Appropriate strategies to reduce risks from manual handling should be developed, e.g. raising the lower storage height above the ground to minimise bending; avoiding the handling of full boxes by removing individual reams from the box one at time; or ordering smaller quantities of paper on a more frequent basis so that they can be stored on shelving with clear access.

Using a trolley to handle stored materials

The use of a trolley to carry materials to and from a central storage area may be required to minimise the demands of this task. This should not just apply to large or heavy items but also to smaller items like files. When choosing a trolley an assessment should be made of the workplace requirements. These include the type of floor surface and what size and type of wheel is required, whether the trolley should be adjustable to allow for materials to be slid directly from the trolley to a shelf, how accessible the trolley is to get items into and out of, and whether there are large quantities of material to be shifted, requiring some form of motorised trolley.
Items such as photocopy paper can be stored on a trolley close to the photocopier.  This minimises storage at ground level and as the trolley can be used for delivery double handling is minimised.

A waist height trolley can be placed in the delivery area so that couriers can place items directly on the trolley. The trolley can then be used to transport the items to the required area.

General hazards

Copying

Potential hazards

Awareness of the potential hazards (from the release of particles and gases into the environment) and adherence to some simple principles and risk control measures will virtually eliminate any risk to safety and health from copying and printing equipment. Purchase of well-designed equipment will also assist in achieving this.

Ventilation for multiple machines

Ozone is a gas produced in small amounts by electrostatic photocopiers. Under normal circumstances, the concentration of ozone is not sufficient to cause symptoms such as itchy eyes or illness. Older photocopiers now have activated carbon filters fitted to decompose ozone. Newer photocopiers produce much less ozone. It is best to store photocopiers in a well-ventilated area. For more information regarding ozone, refer to Office Copying Machines (1989) . The door to the room where photocopiers, fax machines and printers are kept, should be left open to assist air flow. If noise is a concern or the door is closed for other reasons, the effect on ventilation should be assessed and appropriate modifications made.

Toner dust

A copy of the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) from the manufacturer of the toner will provide the safety and health information needed to identify and assess the hazards. It will also provide handling and storage information.

Fire safety 

Information about fire safety is imperative in every workplace setting and sources for potential fires must be identified and assessed. Fire escape routes and plans should be clearly visible. Regulation 3.9 provides more information on fire precautions.

Electrical safety 

Electrical appliances are being increasingly used in the office environment placing increased pressure on a limited number of power points. A qualified electrician should be engaged to provide additional outlets if many power boards are used and to test and tag electrical equipment at appropriate intervals. RCD’s for the office should be checked regularly. As electrical equipment needs increase, it can be tempting to use extension cords to operate them. This can create problems as floors become cluttered with cables, which can trip unwary staff members. Electrical cords or cables should not be allowed to lie on floors because they are vulnerable to water and physical damage by trolleys and chair castors, and can then become an electrical hazard.

The use of electric radiators in the confines of office workstations can be hazardous increasing the risk of fire. Alternative appliances may be used on a temporary basis while the climate control in the office is under review, repair or maintenance, but these should be of a closed variety with no potential for causing a fire hazard. Overloading power boards and using unauthorised or modified plugs can lead to electrocution or fire. Frayed power cords also increase the risk of injury from these hazards.

In WA, regulation 3.59.pertains to electrical safety.

Smoking 

Environmental tobacco smoke is an airborne contaminant and passive smoking constitutes a risk to health. It is important to ensure employees can work in a smoke free environment. To maintain a smoke-free workplace, a policy and a plan should be in place. Some organisations provide education programs and assistance for those wishing to quit smoking. If smoking is permitted it is important to carefully consider where smoking areas are located as they must away from building air intake valves and not in any easements or walk ways. Assessment of smoking areas should also factor wind, movement as well as access to cleaning.

Security and emergencies 

Generally, office emergencies are rare. However, an essential part of occupational safety and health is to be prepared for potential security and emergency situations, such as fire, bomb threats, personal assaults, forced entry or hold-ups. The risks from emergencies or security breakdowns will vary considerably depending on the size and layout of the office, the industry involved and the type of information and valuables which may be on the premises.

Secure entrance to buildings and identification of employees is necessary for multi-storey and large offices, particularly where there is potential for client threat or violence or theft. Provision of duress alarms for staff facing the public and design of entrance areas to discourage client access are part of the prevention of breaches to security. In areas of particular threat security staff may be required to monitor entrances and assess visitors.

Wherever there is a possibility of threat of weapons or bombs, a documented telephone procedure should be available to all staff to guide them in responding to threats and getting information to identify the person making the threat.

Some issues to consider during policy development include emergency evacuation procedures for staff and the public and arrangements with emergency services. Appointing, training and equipping floor wardens as coordinators between staff and these agencies can be a central step to handling emergencies well. Emergency evacuations should be practised at regular intervals to ensure procedures are known by all employees.

No matter how small, every office or workplace should have a fire protection system in place. This may range from a simple plan of exit and provision of fire extinguishers to a system of elected and trained fire wardens, a central controller and immediate communication to fire services. In addition, every employee should be aware of the hazards which may contribute to a fire, be aware of and have practised an emergency exit from the workplace at regular intervals.

For a complex working environment a consultant in emergency management may be required to set up systems to minimise risks from physical or psychological damage in emergencies.

Emergency clearing of the building or area may be required and staff should be aware of the procedures for exiting the workplace, for example in the case of a fire.

Hazardous substances 

Some of the substances used in offices may be hazardous, however, these generally pose little risk under normal circumstances and conditions of use within the office environment. Examples of such substances include cleaning fluids, liquid paper, glues, inks, solvents and cleaning agents.

Conduct a survey of materials being used in the office and obtaining MSDSs from the suppliers.  Copies of these should be assembled at one or more accessible points as a register. For example, they could be kept in a ring binder in the tea room or photocopier room.

An assessment of exposure should be conducted for each hazardous substance used in the office. An up-to-date MSDS should be held for each substance used at the workplace). Material Safety Data Sheets can be obtained from the supplier of the product. Guidance on what should be included in a good MSDS may be found in Safe Work Australia's National Code of Practice for the Preparation of Material Safety Data Sheets 2nd edition (2003).

In WA, regulations related to hazardous substances are outlined in environmental layout.

Housekeeping issues

It is easy to overlook housekeeping in a busy office environment, however poor housekeeping can lead to many hazards in the office environment. Good housekeeping practices protect people from a variety of possible injuries and illnesses, including injuries from manual handling, electrical and tripping hazards and infections. Good housekeeping also provides a pleasant and clean workplace – and a safe one! Housekeeping extends beyond a consistent approach to office tidiness.

Drugs and alcohol

Alcohol and drugs can interfere with a person’s performance at work. The effects of drugs and alcohol in the workplace include deterioration in productivity, quality of work, motivation and working relationships.

A policy on the management of drugs and alcohol in the workplace can help ensure the safety and health of employees, minimise the cost of absences and prevent productivity problems, improve working relationships and provide assistance to employees when required.

Transmissible diseases

It is important to identify the risks of transmissible diseases in the workplace. There are many transmissible diseases and they vary in severity from diseases such as influenza, measles, chicken pox and whooping cough to the blood borne viruses such as hepatitis B and C and HIV. A policy for minimising the risk of transmission of such diseases will assist employers and employees to manage the issues associated with the prevention and management of these hazards. There are many simple practicable ways to reduce the transmission of such diseases, such as encouraging vaccination and taking sick leave when ill.

Most people in offices are not exposed to the risk of transmission of diseases such as hepatitis, HIV or AIDS in their work although this risk is increased in health and human service organisations. Increased risk may occur if the office worker is exposed to infected blood, body tissues or fluids. An example of this is during first aid procedures. A policy on blood-borne diseases should provide guidelines for dealing with situations where there is an increased risk of transmission and where appropriate and available make vaccination available. Specific issues regarding freedom from discrimination and the confidential treatment of employees with infections need to be incorporated within the policy.

In WA, the National Code of Practice for the Control of Work-related Exposure to Hepatitis and HIV (Blood-borne) viruses [NOHSC:2010(2003)]  applies.

Waste paper

The collection, disposal and recycling of waste paper should be planned and maintained to minimise disruption and hazards in the office. The location and use of paper shredding machines should take into account the noise they generate and the mess from spillage when they are emptied. The placement of paper into a shredder can be hazardous if items of clothing such as ties or long hair become trapped.  Shredders with an angled entry chute should be used or alternatively consider having locked paper recycling bins where paper is shredded off site.

Food hygiene

Ensuring that food hygiene is maintained is important. Harmful bacteria can be transmitted through poorly cleaned eating utensils and unwashed dishcloths. Old food in the work fridge is not only smelly, it can introduce bacteria into the main food storage area. Provide sticky labels and a pen by the fridge for staff to label and date their food. Develop a system for checking that unwanted food is thrown away at the end of the working week, and that adequate washing up facilities or a dishwasher are available.

 

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