Careful assessment required
Some office working environments may pose specific risks because of the type of work or the demands of work. Eliminating or reducing risks in different working environments depends on careful assessment of the effects on the employees involved. This guidance provides examples of different office environments.
Customer-controlled or 'call centre' work
A call centre is a workplace that receives and transmits a large volume of customer requests by telephone. The main focus of call centres is generally to provide product support and information to customers by telephone and occasionally by mail, email or fax.
Many office jobs are in telephone call centres and often require long periods of time in a fixed posture. Other occupational health and safety (OHS) issues include hearing problems, what is known as acoustic shock, vocal problems and stress from dealing with angry or difficult customers. The WorkSafe website has more information about acoustic shock on the page, Telephones and Mobile Phones.
The design of call centre workstations and environments is the same in principle as for general office work but special care is necessary with the design, provision and hygiene of essential equipment.
Easily adjustable furniture and equipment is important because employees may have to work at different workstations. However, the use of shared equipment and tools such as desks, keyboards, the mouse, chairs and headsets should be avoided or minimised wherever possible to control the risk of infectious disease transmission.
Given the constrained nature of the work, issues of job design must be carefully considered. Issues to consider include introducing variety into the work, taking adequate breaks and 'time out' pauses for operators.
Generally, employees in a call centre:
- handle phone traffic or electronic requests
- are trained in customer service
- use workstations with single or multiple computer screens
- are equipped with a computer, telephone with headset and task-related information
Health and safety hazards and risks in call centres generally fall into the following groups:
- nature of the work, for example, computer-based work, working postures, customer relations
- work organisation, for example, work management, people management
- work environment, for example, rest areas
Call centre employees may be at a higher risk of experiencing a workplace musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) because they often:
- use computer screens over a prolonged period
- have fewer opportunities to take breaks from using the computer or change work activity
Risk factors in call centres that may cause or aggravate MSDs include:
- repetitive or sustained awkward or static postures
- repetitive or sustained movements using the same muscle groups
- physical work environment such as temperature and lighting
- duration of work
Awkward, repetitive or sustained working postures combined with long periods of limited movement can lead to discomfort. In the case of computer-based work the ideal working posture has the following elements:
- forward facing with no prolonged twisting or bending of the neck or torso
- well supported, particularly the back, seat and feet
- arms relaxed and by the side while working
- frequently used equipment within easy reach without twisting
- ability to change position easily by adjusting chair or desk height or standing up
WorkSafe's guidance, Office Workstation Design, has more information about setting up a workstation.
Repetition and duration
Repetitive work refers to the repeated performance of similar tasks or work cycles involving the same body actions and continuously using the same muscles.
Repetitive movement reduces rest and recovery time. It may result in increased wear and tear of body tissues and greater potential for muscle fatigue. Repetitive keyboard and mouse use over long periods can cause MSDs, particularly to the hands and wrists.
Duration of work refers to the length of time an employee is exposed to a risk factor such as repetitive movement or awkward posture. The duration of the task can have a substantial effect on the likelihood of both general and muscle fatigue.
WorkSafe has guidance on keyboard and mouse use and guidance on hazardous manual handling, which includes repetitive movements and sustained awkward postures.
Hot-desking is an office system where different users share a workstation or work at a vacant workstation. Employers should avoid or minimise hot-desking, so far as reasonably practicable, to control the spread of infectious diseases. If it is not reasonably practicable to avoid hot-desking, employers must implement measures to minimise the risk of the spread of infection. It is important that furniture and equipment used for hot-desking is adjustable and meets the requirements of as many different users as possible.
Where it is not reasonably practicable to avoid hot-desking, employers should:
- minimise the sharing of workstations and equipment
- arrange for workstations, keyboards, computer mice and other commonly used equipment to be wiped down and cleaned before and after use
- provide height-adjustable chairs to suit different statures
- provide height-adjustable desks, monitors, stands/document holders and footrests
- have computers and software which allow easy interchange of mouse and keyboards without disruption
- test the adjustability of equipment, chairs and furniture before purchase
- provide suitable cleaning material to wipe down and clean the workstation, keyboards, mouse and other commonly used equipment between users
- train and update employees regularly in the correct methods to adjust their workstation, chair and equipment
- allow employees adequate time to properly adjust their workstation to suit their body and prepare for work
- ensure employees place frequently used equipment such as the telephone handset or dialler within their reach zone
- provide adequate supervision and time to ensure employees adjust their workstation to suit their body and tasks
- have secure storage areas for personal items
Apart from the risk of spreading infection, hot-desking may cause problems if the workstation:
- does not suit the employee's dimensions
- is not adjusted correctly at the start of every shift
- is not adjustable
Each time an employee starts work at a new workstation, the components of the workstation, for example, chair, desk, computer screen, mouse, document holder and footrest, need to be adjusted to suit that employee.
The allocation of headsets is another factor to consider in hot-desking. Each employee should be provided with their own headset and should avoid sharing equipment.
Using headsets is a requirement of many jobs, particularly call centre work. Hazards from working with headsets include loud unpleasant noises, also known as acoustic incidents, illnesses associated with poor headset hygiene and vocal fatigue.
To prevent the possible spread of infection, employees should not share headsets. So far as reasonably practicable, employers should supply a headset for each employee required to use one. Headsets should be cleaned regularly.
WorkSafe's guidance, Telephones and Mobile Phones, includes information about using headsets and includes information on hazards, risks and control measures.
While most workplaces have various communication tools, talking and listening remain the main activities of employees in call centres. Excessive talking can affect both the voice and throat. Employees using their voice at work require a higher level of vocal competency compared with everyday speaking. This may result in voice overuse and strain.
WorkSafe's guidance, Telephones and Mobile Phones, includes information about vocal comfort.
Abusive and aggressive calls
Call centre employees can be subject to abusive and aggressive calls which are likely to cause some level of distress. The impact will depend on:
- severity of the abuse
- frequency of abusive calls
- availability of support during and following an abusive call
Frequent abusive calls involve a risk of psychological harm to the employee receiving the calls. Employees feeling unsupported may lead to low morale, resulting in a higher rate of work absence or increased turnover in staff.
See WorkSafe's Telephones and Mobile Phones guidance for more information about abusive and aggressive calls, including control measures to help eliminate or reduce and control risks associated with aggressive and abusive calls.
Call centre work and stress
Work-related stress describes an employee's stress response to work-related factors. These responses may be physical, mental, emotional or behavioural.
Stress is not an injury or an illness, however excessive and long-lasting stress can have a negative effect on employees' health, safety and wellbeing and can lead to psychological injury.
Psychosocial hazards are factors in the design or management of work that increase the risk of work-related stress and can lead to psychological or physical harm. Examples of psychosocial hazards might include poor supervisor support or high job demands.
Employees are likely to be exposed to a combination of psychosocial hazards. Some hazards might always be present at work, while others are present only occasionally. There is a greater risk of work-related stress when psychosocial hazards combine and act together, so employers should not consider hazards in isolation.
Psychosocial hazards do not necessarily reveal the causes of work-related stress. Causes are likely to be specific to the employee, work or workplace. Senior management should identify which psychosocial hazards negatively affect employees' health and well-being and take appropriate action to control the impact of those hazards.
WorkSafe has a range of guidance about work-related stress, including information to help employers prevent and manage work-related stress.
Many organisations increasingly provide the option of working from home. As well, many small businesses operate from the home, setting up an office in a section of the house to run the business. Where people work at home, lack of social contact may lead to boredom, lack of motivation and loss of involvement in decision-making within the organisation.
Employers should consider providing a balance between work at home and contact at work in a larger office setting.
Health and safety issues to consider when setting up a home office include:
- the suitability of the environment for the range and duration of activities. For example, reliable internet and communications, availability of appropriate equipment, impact on partner and children, housemates, pets
- the suitability of the design of the home office, including workplace layout, furniture, equipment and separation from other areas of the home
- the environment, for example, lighting and thermal comfort
- the selection, motivation and management of staff
- training in safe working procedures
- involving the person in the planning and evaluation of work to provide them with control and feedback about their work and to prevent isolation
Employers should develop policies and procedures to cover the OHS issues of working at home, including job design, hours of work, breaks and task variation. Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act), employers have a duty, so far as reasonably practicable, to consult employees and any health and safety representatives (HSRs) when making decisions about procedures to resolve health or safety issues.
Off-site administrative or audit work
Prolonged computer work can be required in circumstances such as reporting the proceedings of conferences or corporate meetings or during audits of organisations. These working environments may be poorly designed for the tasks and have inappropriate furniture, lighting, noise and equipment. The work may be highly repetitive over a number of days. A workplace policy should include a requirement for the host organisation to provide an appropriate workstation, equipment and environment. Alternatively, the employer should provide portable equipment, for example, laptop stand, separate mouse and keyboard and a trolley for equipment transport. Staff numbers should allow for regular breaks from prolonged keyboard or mouse use or periods of high concentration.
Reception or counter areas
There are many office jobs which involve interaction with customers or clients. Where work involves a variety of users and tasks, including administrative and computing activities, adjustability is required to accommodate employees. Wider bench surfaces may be required for the placement of delivery items and to improve staff security. However, take care to avoid the need for reception or customer service staff to have extended periods of reaching up and forward. Security features, such as screens and duress or emergency buttons, may be required. WorkSafe's work-related violence guidance has information about security measures to eliminate or reduce and control risks associated with violence and aggression.
The design of reception areas should reflect the type of work involved. Desks may need to be low to accommodate discussion and interviews or high to separate staff from clients or customers. When the desk is high, consider whether staff need to be seated up high, possibly on a height-adjustable chair with a footrest, or perhaps a false floor is required to raise the staff to the level of the customer. The height should reflect the type of work and whether the employee is sitting at the workstation, standing or both. For recommendations about the appropriate design of counter workstations see the Australian/New Zealand Standard AS/NZS 4442: 2018 Office desks, office workstations and tables intended to be used as office desks - Mechanical, dimensional and general requirements and test methods.
Work practices to allow variation in tasks and breaks from constrained posture and customer demands are important.
Reduced visual comfort can be associated with computer screen work. Symptoms include sore eyes, blurred vision, tired eyes and headaches.
Although intensive use of computer screens can cause temporary effects on vision, there is little scientific evidence that using computer screens causes long-term eyesight damage. Permanent eyesight deterioration is usually caused by normal ageing.
Because of the intensive use of computer screens, any existing but previously undetected eyesight deficiencies may become apparent, for example, in the form of headaches.
WorkSafe's Working with Computers guidance discusses health and safety issues relating to computer use.
Work type checklist
Check the risks from specific types of work are controlled as far as practicable, including:
Your legal duties
The OHS Act requires employers to provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to health, including psychological health, so far as reasonably practicable. This responsibility includes providing and maintaining safe systems of work and an obligation to consult with employees and HSRs on matters that directly affect or are likely to affect their health or safety.
Employees also have duties under the OHS Act to take reasonable care for their own health and safety, the health and safety of people in the workplace and to co-operate with their employer.
Find out more about office work and your legal obligations on the WorkSafe website page, The risk management approach to health and safety.
Australian/New Zealand Standard
- AS/NZS 4442: 2018 Office desks, office workstations and tables intended to be used as office desks - Mechanical, dimensional and general requirements and test methods.
The risk management approach to health and safety
Identifying hazards in the office
Developing a health and safety policy
Physical factors in office work
Office work and mental health
Thermal comfort and air quality in offices
Office layout and design
Office workstation design
Choosing and using office chairs
Desks, workstations and workbenches
Health and safety with keyboards, the mouse and other pointing devices
Telephones and mobile phones
Using office equipment safely
Storage and moving systems
Working with computers
General office health and safety
Exercises for office employees
Using copiers, printers and similar equipment
Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004External link
Legislation Victoria: Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017External link
Occupational health and safety – your legal duties
Hazardous manual handling
Consultation with health and safety representatives
Preventing and managing work-related stress: A guide for employers
Compliance code: Workplace amenities and work environment
Occupational violence and aggressionExternal link
Getting help to improve health and safety
Standards AustraliaExternal link