Managing risk

How to create a healthy and safe office environment

While it’s easy to identify hazards in high risk environments, office safety hazards are less easy to identify. It may not be obvious, but computers, tripping hazards and workplace ergonomics all affect an employee’s health at work. 

Offices are generally considered as a safe working environment, but there are still risks to take into account. According to key work health and safety (WHS) statistics, there were over 10,000 serious work health and safety claims made by professionals in 2018.

This costs employers a significant amount of time and money, both in workers compensation claims and lost productivity. When it comes to creating a healthy workplace environment, employers must consider a range of factors. From office ergonomics to computer hazards and risks, here’s how to manage risk and improve office safety in your workplace.

Identifying hazards in an office environment

Employers are obligated to provide healthy and safe working practices for their employees. Whether it’s in the building or in an employee’s tasks, there are a number of risks in the modern workplace. These can include factors such as:

  • ergonomic issues that might affect an employee’s health, safety and wellbeing

  • repetitive sedentary and manual tasks that can lead to strain

  • electrical and fire safety hazards

  • slip, trip and fall hazards such as wiring

  • the effects of poor lighting, temperature, and air quality

  • risks associated with computer use, including eye strain, posture, or repetitive strain injury.

Each of these risks poses a threat to workplace health and safety. As an employer, you need to take steps to address each to provide a safe working environment for your team.

Good work design: ergonomics in the workplace

Office ergonomics refers to the design and arrangement of work spaces and equipment to help people work safely and efficiently. Ergonomic issues are particularly common in an office where employees are regularly using furniture and computers. Because of this, considering ergonomics in the office is essential if your employees regularly work at a computer desk.

Safe Work Australia has principles to guide good work design, including workplace ergonomics. This is so employees can do their jobs in a safe environment. Ergonomic requirements refer to the work itself, work systems, the physical working environment, and the people within the organisation. In order to implement good work design in your office, it’s important to consider the following:

  • Ensure the alignment of the screen and keyboard are comfortable, so no twisting of the head or body is needed.

  • The height of the screen, keyboard, desk and chair are comfortable for the employee. In some cases, foot rests and screen risers can help.

  • Prevent glare or reflections on the screen, in order to limit the likelihood of an employee working in awkward positions.

  • Invest in the right office furniture and equipment to ensure your employees can work safely and comfortably.

It’s important to remember the consequences of poor workstation setup aren’t obvious, and occur over time. Good work design can protect your employees from long term health risks as a result of their role.

Encouraging breaks from sedentary work

Office work often involves prolonged periods of sitting. Statistics have shown that sitting can pose significant risks to a person’s health, leading to premature death, an increased risk of heart disease, increased risk of type II diabetes, a higher risk of physical strain, and an increased risk of bowel cancer.

There are a number of ways to reduce the amount of sedentary work in your office. To help employees stay active, remind them to take regular breaks from sitting and to eat lunch away from their desks. You can also try to vary work tasks to encourage employees to change their posture, or foster a standing-friendly work culture.

The Comcare website also has more ideas on how to manage sedentary work in your office, as well as links to more information.

Managing slips, trips and falls through safe work design

Offices use electronic equipment with cables, which mean slips, trips and falls are all common hazards in the workplace. Slips, trips and falls are often preventable, but failing to manage these hazards can lead to serious claims or death. Safe Work Australia recommends employers use safe design principles at work to minimise these risks.

Electric cables, mats, unexpected steps and slippery or wet surfaces can increase the risk of slips, trips, and falls. Employees can suffer serious injuries as a result of these hazards, which is why you need to take special care to control them.

To start with, it’s important to identify and assess the current risks in your office. If these can be eliminated, employers should take every measure to do so. If they can’t be removed, you need to minimise the risk as much as possible. This could mean covering electric cables with electrical tape and marking them clearly, or marking slippery surfaces clearly.

Safe Work Australia also has a model code of practice to help employers manage the risk of falls at work.

Controlling the office environment

As well as safe design and ergonomic considerations, employers also need to consider the physical environment of the office. This includes temperature control and air quality control measures, such as:

  • maintaining a comfortable temperature in the workplace

  • providing adequate air conditioning if needed

  • monitoring and controlling air quality as much as possible

  • risk management of conditions such as Legionnaires’ disease

  • risk management of ‘sick building syndrome’, particularly because Australians spend more than 90% of their time indoors.

Other hazards or risks to keep in mind

In addition to these hazards and risks, there may be additional risks in your office. 

Workplaces often use a range of electrical appliances. This can include photocopiers, printers, TVs, and office kitchens with kettles, microwaves and fridges. As an employer, you need to ensure that electrical equipment is well-maintained and not overloaded to prevent fire hazards.

Housekeeping is also a key consideration. Employees may leave storage boxes or personal items lying around on the floor, creating trip hazards or obstructions to the exits. In order to manage this, it’s important to ensure there’s enough storage space in your office. Employees should also be reminded regularly to clean their workspace.

Where to go for more information

Health and safety in the office is an important topic for employers, and there are plenty of resources out there to help.

Safe Work Australia and SafeWork NSW have guidelines and an office hazards checklist to help employers create a safe office space. There are also model codes of practice to help you comply with work health and safety regulations in your workplace.

In addition, if you need to speak to someone about workplace health and safety, WorkCover offers free advisory visits and workshops. These can help you identify hazards and maintain a safe workplace in order to meet your health and safety obligations.

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