Health and Safety

by Pete Fisher

Workplace health and safety

Health and safety within the working environment is primarily governed by the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992. These regulations apply to a wide range of workplaces, including factories, offices, shops, schools, hotels and places of entertainment. The term workplace also includes the common parts of any shared building, as well as private roads, paths and temporary workplaces.

The aim of the regulations is to minimise the risk of injury to employees, visitors, contractors, members of the public and any other users of the workplace.

Maintenance of workplaces and equipment

The workplace and equipment must be maintained to ensure it is efficient and in working order. There must be a system to ensure regular maintenance and that any potentially dangerous defects are remedied as soon as practicable.

Maintenance of the workplace includes regular cleaning, which will help to eliminate dust and other factors that may exacerbate pre-existing conditions in certain people, as well as making the environment more pleasant to work in.

Ventilation

Ventilation in workplaces should provide adequate fresh air to create a healthy and comfortable environment and provide an adequate airflow without creating draughts. If mechanical systems are used they should be designed to

  • Ensure that external pollutants, such as traffic fumes, are not drawn into the air intake
  • Provide adequate fresh air to create a healthy and comfortable environment
  • Dilute and remove airborne impurities and pollutants, such as dusts and fumes
  • Prevent stagnant air building up in the workplace
  • Not create draughts
  • Create and maintain reasonable temperatures and humidity
  • Be easily cleaned and maintained to prevent dust or fungal spores being introduced into the building.

Indoor temperature

For sedentary workers, such as those in offices, the regulations state a minimum ambient temperature of 16° C; there is no maximum temperature specified.

In the UK, the recognised acceptable thermal comfort zone for most people lies between 13° C and 30° C. If conditions expose employees to uncomfortable temperatures, management action should be taken to try and resolve the problem.

High temperatures in offices are frequently experienced in the summer months, particularly where no air conditioning exists. Some suggested methods for alleviating the problem are

  • Ensuring that windows can be opened
  • Providing fans, such as desk, pedestal or ceiling-mounted fans
  • Shading windows with blinds or using reflective film to reduce the heating effect of the sun
  • Positioning workstations away from direct sunlight and places that radiate heat
  • Providing additional facilities, such as cold water dispensers (water is preferable to caffeine or carbonated drinks)
  • Allowing sufficient breaks to enable employees to get cold drinks or to cool down
  • Introducing flexible working practices, such as flexible hours or earlier starts to the working day, to avoid the worst effects of working in exceptionally high temperatures
  • Relaxing formal dress codes (but ensure that personal protective equipment is provided and used if required).

Lighting

Wherever possible, lighting should take the form of natural daylight and should be sufficient to enable staff to work and move around in safety without experiencing any eye-strain.

The lighting should be maintained at a comfortable level for the task being undertaken; this may involve subdued lighting in some conditions or task lighting for more detailed work.

Lights should not be allowed to become obscured and defects must be remedied as soon as practicable.

Space

Every person must have sufficient space to carry out his or her allotted work safely and without risk to health. The regulations specify a minimum space requirement of 11 cubic metres per person, which should take into account furniture and other equipment needs.

Floor and traffic routes

The floor of any workplace must be constructed so that it is suitable for the type and volume of traffic (pedestrian or vehicular) that will pass over it.

Slips, trips and falls are a major cause of workplace injury and any holes, bumps or uneven surfaces must be made good as soon as practicable. In the meantime, temporary barriers or signs must be positioned to make others aware of the hazard. Slips must be cleaned up as soon as possible; where the work involves the use of liquids, it may be appropriate to apply a slip-resistant finish to the floor.

There should be clear demarcation and, where practicable, barriers between pedestrian and vehicle routes.

Falls

Specific regulations cover working at height, but employers must ensure in general that effective measures are in place to prevent staff falling or objects falling on persons below. This extends to areas perceived as low risk: provision must be made for staff to reach high shelves and items such as books or files must not be allowed to build up in such a way that they could fall unexpectedly.

Any work at height must be avoided as far as practicable and a suitable and sufficient risk assessment must be undertaken to identify suitable controls.

Welfare facilities

Every employer must provide adequate welfare facilities for all employees:

  • Sufficient numbers of toilets and washbasins for those expected to use them
  • Where practicable, separate facilities for men and women and disabled persons – failing that, rooms with lockable doors
  • A supply of toilet paper and, for female employees, a means of disposing of sanitary dressings
  • Facilities that are well lit, ventilated and with hot and cold running water
  • Soap and a means for drying hands, such as paper towels or a hot air dryer.

In addition to the above, an adequate supply of drinking water must be readily accessible and there should be facilities for employees to eat meals away from their workplace. This does not mean that the employer has to provide a canteen or restaurant, but these can be used provided there is no obligation to purchase food in them.

Facilities for pregnant or nursing mothers should also be available and conveniently located to the workplace.

Humidity

Humidity in the workplace should be monitored and controlled at an acceptable level as far as practicable.

  • Excessively humid conditions allow micro-organisms to thrive and can inhibit the ability to sweat and maintain a constant body temperature.
  • Excessively dry atmospheres may cause problems for asthmatics and those suffering from eczema. In addition, dry conditions contribute to a dusty atmosphere.

Working on computers in dry atmospheres, combined with the drying effect of static electricity from computer screens, can lead to dry skin and dry sore eyes.

Tip

Plants in the workplace can be a simple way of helping to improve humidity as well as the aesthetic appeal of offices.

Housekeeping

One of the greatest causes of accidents in offices, particularly slips, trips or falls, is bad housekeeping. Managers must ensure that housekeeping is maintained at adequate standards for any areas they control.

The following guidelines, if adhered to, will help reduce the risk of an accident.

  • Keep work areas in a tidy and orderly state.
  • Keep passageways, stairways, entrances and exits, in particular emergency exits, clear and free from obstruction.
  • Spillages should be cleared up immediately.
  • The amount of stored paperwork should be minimised.
  • Objects should neither be stored on top of high-level cabinets nor left on the floor (tripping hazard).
  • Fill filing cabinets from the bottom upwards.
  • Pull-out drawers should be closed immediately after use.
  • Electric and telephone cables should run tidily and not pose a tripping hazard.
  • The ventilation grilles of electrical equipment must not be blocked.
  • Drinks should not be placed in the vicinity of electrical equipment.
  • Where practicable, electrical equipment should be switched off before leaving an office unoccupied for any length of time (to go home, for instance).
  • All furniture and other equipment must be maintained in good repair.