General office health and safety

This guidance provides employers with information about health and safety issues in offices and hazards and risks associated with office equipment and substances.

Specific health and safety issues

Health and safety issues in the office can range from musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) from repetitive motions through to infectious diseases and workplace violence. Specific policies can be developed and implemented for many workplace health and safety issues, including:

  • smoking in the workplace
  • management of diseases
  • drugs and alcohol
  • injuries and first aid at work
  • fire and bomb threat emergencies
  • personal assault, harassment and bullying
  • early intervention and occupational rehabilitation

Policies and procedures should be developed to meet potential issues in the workplace rather than developed in response to an incident.

Smoking in the workplace

Environmental tobacco smoke is an airborne contaminant. Passive smoking may constitute a risk to health. Employers have a duty under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) to provide and maintain, so far as is reasonably practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risk to health.

Smoking is not permitted in Victorian workplaces and a policy and plan should be in place to maintain a smoke-free workplace. Some organisations provide education programs and help for employees wishing to quit smoking.

Infectious diseases

Infectious diseases can spread from person to person. Most infectious diseases are mild, for example, the common cold. However, some infectious diseases can cause serious illness and death and workplaces should have policies and plans in place to deal with these hazards.

Employers must identify hazards and, if necessary, assess the level of risk to the health of employees, including independent contractors and their employees, from exposure to an infectious disease at their workplace. Hazard identification and risk assessment must be done in consultation with employees and any health and safety representatives (HSRs), so far as reasonably practicable.

Risks of exposure to an infectious disease may arise from a range of sources, including:

  • working near other employees and people requiring services
  • engaging with delivery drivers or contractors attending the workplace
  • transmission through high-touch surfaces such as desks, chairs and light switches
  • sharing facilities such as lifts, bathrooms, kitchens and communal break areas
  • employees sharing items used in the workplace such as computers, phones and through hot-desking

Where a risk to health is identified at a workplace, employers must, so far as reasonably practicable, eliminate the risk. Where it is not possible to eliminate the risk employers must control the risk, so far as reasonably practicable.

The control measures required depend on the level of risk as well as the availability and suitability of controls for each workplace, including individual work areas.

Depending on the nature of the infectious disease and the health consequences, employers should implement a system of work that includes the following actions, as appropriate:

  • keeping informed and up-to-date with infectious disease information
  • ensuring compliance with any restrictions or directions issued by the Australian and Victorian governments, including, for example, record keeping, notifications, physical distancing and working from home
  • eliminating or minimising hot-desking, particularly in pandemic or disaster situations
  • providing adequate personal hygiene and washing facilities and ensuring employees follow good hygiene practices
  • cleaning workplaces often
  • educating and keeping employees up to date, including information and training about symptoms, what to do if they feel unwell and when they need to stay away from the workplace
  • undertaking occupational health and safety (OHS) risk management by managing the direct and indirect risks
  • incorporating OHS preparations and risk control measures into a business continuity plan
  • reviewing and evaluating risk control measures
  • planning and managing the recovery phase

Blood-borne diseases

A policy for minimising the risk of transmission of blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis B and C and HIV will help employers and employees manage the issues associated with the prevention and management of these hazards.

Most people in offices are not exposed to the risk of transmission of hepatitis, HIV or AIDS from work, although this risk is increased in health and human service organisations. Increased risk may occur if an office employee 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. Specific issues regarding freedom from discrimination and the confidential treatment of employees with infections need to be incorporated within the policy. Guidance can be found in Safe Work Australia's Model Code of Practice: How to manage work health and safety risks.

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 health and safety of employees, minimise the cost of absences and prevent productivity problems, improve working relationships and provide help to employees when required.

Injuries in the office and first aid

MSDs, cuts and bruises are the most common injuries occurring in offices. Legislation requires employers to provide adequate facilities for the welfare of employees in the workplace. This usually includes appropriate first aid facilities and suitably trained persons. Policies and procedures for first aid in offices should ensure the implementation of an effective approach to the management of injuries. WorkSafe's Compliance Code: First aid in the workplace provides guidance for establishing procedures for dealing with minor injuries and illness at work.

Early intervention and occupational rehabilitation

The emphasis of workplace-based early intervention and rehabilitation is to maintain injured employees at work or return them to appropriate work in a timely and cost-efficient manner. This requires workplace procedures and the assigning of responsibilities. Advice should be sought from the appropriate workers' compensation authority or insurer.

A policy for early intervention and occupational rehabilitation should integrate with relevant OHS prevention policies and procedures to ensure that the risks associated with workplace injury are managed effectively.

WorkSafe has guidance for employers and employees involved in the return to work process after a work-related illness or injury.

Incidents and emergencies in the office

An essential part of OHS is to be prepared for a broad range of incidents that might occur onsite. This includes preparing for more significant events such as fire, bomb threat and personal assault emergencies in case they occur. 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 to act 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 all employees know the procedures.

First aid risk assessment process

1. Identify potential causes of work and illness

            2. Assess the risk of work injuries and illness occurring

                        3. What first aid facilities are required to meet the assessed needs?

                          • How many first aid officers are needed?
                          • What competencies do they require?
                          • What training is needed?
                          • How many kits are needed?
                          • Where should they be located?
                          • Are kits identifiable?
                          • Who is responsible for maintaining the kits?
                          • Who is responsible for the room or centre?
                          • Have all factors been considered?

                        4. Periodic review of assessment

                          Security and emergencies

                          While office emergencies are rare, every office has potential security and emergency situations such as fire, bomb threats or 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.

                          Fire protection

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

                          Secure entrance

                          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. Providing duress alarms for staff facing the public and designing entrance areas to discourage client access are part of the prevention of breaches to security. Security staff may be required to monitor entrances and check visitors in areas of particular threat.

                          Documented procedure

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

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

                          Managing violence and trauma

                          If there is a likelihood of client aggression incidents occurring, it is important your office has a response plan for these incidents. Following serious emergencies, exposed staff may require trauma counselling. Arrangements for this service should also be a part of a well-developed emergency response plan.

                          Relocating offices and moving furniture and equipment

                          Relocation of office spaces can lead to OHS problems associated with manual handling of furniture and equipment. Often, a poorly organised process can result in staff undertaking unusual and inappropriate handling tasks, such as lifting, carrying, pushing and pulling. Relocation requires a systems approach to the moving process. The following approaches are recommended:

                          • a move coordinator is appointed to organise a systematic, sequential process of relocation with allocated staff roles
                          • a consultation process is undertaken with employees and any HSRs to get staff input and ensure a cooperative effort
                          • a hazard audit is performed to identify OHS issues in the move and allocate suitable control measures
                          • the need for relevant moving personnel and equipment such as trolleys, ladders, boxes and protective equipment is assessed and organised
                          • staff are informed what manual handling they are not to undertake
                          • adequate notice is given to staff regarding timing of removal and delivery of furniture to allow staff to plan and organise ahead
                          • staff are given guidance on:
                            • preparing for the move
                            • assessing risky handling situations
                            • using relevant equipment
                            • keeping access areas clear for moving of trolleys and equipment
                            • asking for assistance from the coordinator or moving team
                            • employing safe techniques
                            • not lifting and carrying excessive or awkward loads

                          Housekeeping in the office

                          It is easy to overlook housekeeping in a busy office environment. Good housekeeping practices protect people from possible injuries and illnesses, including injuries from manual handling, electrical and tripping hazards and infections. Good housekeeping also provides a pleasant and clean workplace.

                          Housekeeping extends beyond a consistent approach to office tidiness. It is better to develop regular practices for housekeeping than to assume a large, irregular clean-up will protect health and safety. Housekeeping is a problem best approached as a small regular task.

                          Checklists can help staff to be systematic in their approach to identifying hazards.

                          Staff reports on housekeeping problems are also a valuable source of information about areas needing attention and should be assessed regularly. Surveys of staff opinions and ideas can be useful for information about the current housekeeping system and can be helpful in reviews.

                          Investigations of OHS incidents or accidents should consider whether housekeeping was a contributing factor.

                          Once a hazard is identified, action should be taken to identify, implement and evaluate a solution for addressing the hazard and eliminating or reducing the risk of injury.

                          Planning and reviewing housekeeping

                          Consider the following information when planning or reviewing office housekeeping:

                          Consultation

                          Employers have a duty to consult with employees, independent contractors and any HSRs, so far as is reasonably practicable, on matters related to health or safety that directly affect, or are likely to directly affect them. This includes consultation on identifying hazards or risks and decisions about how to control risks associated with health and safety. The consultation should take place in line with agreed consultation procedures.

                          Checklist for general health and safety issues in the office

                          The following checklist can help identify health and safety issues in the office:

                                                            If you have not checked every box you should take action to address the issue.

                                                            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.