Telephones and mobile phones

Information on this page can help employers and employees eliminate or reduce and control risks from using telephones and mobile phones.

Telephones

People at work use telephones to varying degrees. Telephones should be situated so employees can perform simple tasks, such as taking notes, without the need to twist or support the telephone on the shoulder. A cordless telephone or telephone with a long cord is usually sufficient to allow flexible positioning of the telephone to suit the user.

Telephones should be cleaned regularly.

Headsets

Employees should use headsets when they regularly perform tasks such as typing information or taking orders while using the telephone or doing dedicated telephone work, such as in a call centre. Using a headset can help reduce the reach distance and the frequency of handling the receiver and can eliminate awkward neck postures. Wireless headsets also allow users who spend extended periods making calls change postures and positions.

To prevent the possible spread of infection, employees should not share headsets. Where possible, employers should provide a headset for each employee required to use one. Headsets should be cleaned regularly.

When buying a headset and deciding on the design and number of ear pieces, consider the surrounding environment and the need for the user to attend to other signals.

A hands-free phone may be used for occasions such as a teleconference but hands-free phones are not suitable in an open-office environment.

Illustration showing a call operator using a telephone headset.

Image: Reducing risk by using a telephone headset.

Headset work

Using headsets is a requirement of many workplaces, particularly call centres. Hazards from working with headsets include loud unpleasant noises, also known as acoustic incidents, illnesses associated with poor headset hygiene and vocal fatigue.

Acoustic incidents

Headset users may experience an unexpected or loud noise, known as an acoustic noise. Acoustic noises may be crackles, hisses, whistles or high-pitched sounds transmitted through telephone equipment. The noises can come from a wide variety of sources, either within the transmission system or from the customer end.

These occurrences are known as acoustic incidents. Although many acoustic incidents may occur, few headset users who have experienced acoustic incidents develop symptoms of 'acoustic shock'.

Acoustic shock

'Acoustic shock' is a term that describes the temporary or permanent neurophysiological and psychological symptoms a person may experience following an acoustic incident.

Symptoms can include pain, tinnitus, vertigo, numbness, tingling and nausea. Other factors such as middle-ear inflammation and feelings of stress, tension and anxiety can affect the symptoms.

Research suggests a hypersensitive neurological reflex—the startle reflex—can cause acoustic shock incidents (ASI). When a person is 'sensitised' they become more aware of an incident happening again. This fear of acoustic shock may lead to further noise hypersensitivity at noise levels sometimes well below standards for typical noise injuries. It is likely that ASIs are not due to one single factor, such as the level of sound experienced, but to a combination of physical and psychological factors.

Acoustic shock symptoms

The same acoustic incident can affect individuals differently. Only a small minority of people develop symptoms from an acoustic incident but it is not known with certainty why a person experiences symptoms after an acoustic incident.

Audiologists have grouped acoustic shock into three categories:

  1. Primary acoustic shock, which occurs immediately

    Symptoms include:

    • a feeling of fullness in the ear
    • burning sensations or sharp pain around or in the ear
    • numbness, tingling or soreness down the side of face, neck or shoulder
    • nausea or vomiting
    • dizziness
    • tinnitus and other head noises such as eardrum fluttering
    • hearing loss in very few cases
  2. Secondary acoustic shock, which occurs later

    Symptoms include:

    • headaches
    • fatigue
    • a feeling of being off-balance
    • anxiety
  3. Tertiary acoustic shock

    Symptoms include:

    • hypersensitivity —a sensitivity to previously tolerated sounds such as loud voices, television and radio
    • hypervigilance—being overly alert

People experiencing these symptoms will respond in different ways. As with other workplace injuries and illnesses, some employees may experience other effects, including anger, anxiety, social isolation and other interrelated problems.

Very few people suffer hearing loss from acoustic incidents. To help diagnosis in the few cases where hearing loss occurs, consider having an audiometrist perform baseline testing of employees' hearing when they start work to establish their baseline hearing ability.

Management of acoustic incidents

Reducing the risk of ASI requires an assessment of the workplace environment and the implementation of a range of controls. These may include minimisation, engineering and administrative controls.

Factors influencing the likelihood of an employee receiving an acoustic shock include:

  • number of calls an employee receives or makes in a working day
  • use of a handset or headset
  • background noise levels
  • volume of incoming sound levels
  • unexpected increases in sound volume
  • duration of calls
  • frequency or sounds
  • types of sounds
  • individual characteristics such as health and wellbeing
  • history of acoustic incidents

Vocal comfort

Excessive talking can affect 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.

Symptoms of vocal strain include:

  • loss of voice
  • rough or hoarse quality of voice
  • change in pitch and restricted pitch range
  • decrease in volume
  • pitch breaks on words and phrases
  • vocal fatigue at the end of a day or after a prolonged conversation
  • loss of pitch or expression
  • constant throat clearing
  • voice fades at the end of a sentence
  • dryness in the throat and excessive mucous
  • increased effort to talk
  • difficulty swallowing
  • shortness of breath

Vocal strain and injury can often result in physical changes to an employee's vocal mechanism. This may cause changes to their quality of voice. Vocal strain and injury is the result of various factors including muscle tension, poor posture, excessive use of extreme ranges of pitch and tone, general health and lifestyle and work environmental factors such as background noise

Other factors that may influence vocal strain include:

  • repetitive talking
  • caffeinated drinks which dehydrate the body and voice
  • incorrect positioning of the employee's microphone leading to excessive vocal feedback or forcing the employee to raise their voice to be heard

Good practice for maintaining vocal comfort includes:

  • providing regular voice breaks of at least five minutes of non-vocal time per hour
  • arranging more non-vocal time, where the volume of calls is high or the work is repetitive
  • providing training on headset use, including positioning of microphone, volume controls and voice care training and awareness
  • providing easy access to drinking water
  • providing pre-record introduction information where possible
  • writing scripts that include pauses
  • minimising background noise
  • providing volume controls on headsets so employees do not have to raise their voice
  • reasonable call targets that do not encourage voice overuse
  • ensuring that calls are rotated

Abusive and aggressive callers

Abusive or aggressive calls are likely to cause some level of distress. The impact will depend on the:

  • 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. If employees feel unsupported, this may lead to low morale, resulting in a higher rate of work absence and increased turnover in staff.

Good practice for preventing and responding to customer aggression includes:

  • addressing the reason for the abusive call
    • for example, long wait times, inaccurate or misleading information, lack of employee training or support
  • developing clear procedures and guidelines for dealing with abusive and aggressive calls, including reporting the call and the right to terminate the call
  • providing support during and following abuse
    • for example, supervisor support during the call and ability to escalate the call to a supervisor, time to debrief and recover away from the general work area if required
  • providing access to assistance programs and confidential counselling services
  • ensuring users of internal call centres are aware of their responsibilities, for instance, under the Australian Public Service (APS) Values and APS Code of Conduct, and that inappropriate behaviour is reported and the employee counselled

Procedures should be in place and employees trained in responding to specific incidents such as bomb threats, suicide and violence threats.

Mobile phones

Mobile phones are common for both office work and home use. Safety hazards, such as loss of concentration leading to accidents, arise when people try to perform additional activities at the same time as using a mobile phone. Driving a car and using a mobile phone at the same time is illegal. As an employer, make sure you have policies which ban mobile phone use while driving work vehicles and encourage employees to make phone calls during breaks from driving.

To avoid overuse injuries, discourage the use of mobile phones to send emails for work purposes.

When reading from mobile phones, employees should hold their mobile device at eye level to maintain a neutral position of the neck. Be aware this could have an alternate effect of causing aches in the arms.

A policy of reducing the volume of phones in the workplace can control office noise from ringing phones.

Your legal duties

The Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (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 health and safety representatives (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. A link to the page appears in Related information.