Business Law & Compliance

What constitutes a hazard in the workplace?

6 min read

22 November 2018

Deputy Editor, Real Business

As an employer, you're responsible for the wellbeing of your employees, and this extends to their physical as well as their mental health. Workplace injuries happen more often than you think, here's how to prevent them in the future...

Each year, 150 people in Britain lose or have their quality of life reduced from injuries incurred at work, a recent study has found.

It added: “150,000 people are injured and about 2 million suffer from ill health caused or made worse by work. Small businesses aren’t immune, with the fatality rate in SME manufacturers, for example, about twice that of large ones.”

Although these figures continue to fall year on year, workplaces can still be dangerous places, especially when health and safety policies are not adhered to.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), policies need to “describe how you will manage health and safety hazards in your business. It should clearly say who does what, when and how. Note that if you have fewer than five employees you don’t have to write down your health and safety policy.”

What is a workplace hazard?

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, you as the employer, “are placed with the legal duty to ensure, so far as reasonably practicable, the health, safety, and welfare of employees, and to ensure that employees and others are kept safe.”

But injury caused in the workplace comes in many forms – and some of them you might never have considered could happen in an office – so it is important to understand WHERE  you most risk having injured employees.

Hazards tend to fall into six categories:

(1) Physical – Where a factor in the environment can cause harm. This includes radiation, vibration, extreme temperature or noise, electricity, poor lighting, fire or heights.

(2) Chemical – Where a harmful substance can come in contact with skin, be it fumes, pesticides, cleaning liquids such as acids and solvents or flammable material.

(3) Biological – Where exposure to organic matter can cause impact health. For example, contact with mould, bodily fluids, viruses, plants and toxins.

(4) Organisational – Where stress piles up in the short-term, the result of fatigue, excessive workloads, intense pressure or pace, poor practices, bullying, lack of support and harassment.

(5) Ergonomic – Where physical factors harm the musculoskeletal system. This could be through repetitive or awkward movements, frequent lifting, poor posture or an uncomfortable workstation.

(6) Safety – Whereby unsafe work conditions can put employees in jeopardy – it’s the most common workplace hazard. We’re talking frayed cords, unguarded machinery, confined spaces, trip risks, leaks and scaffolding.

Preventative measures

Slater Heelis, a UK law firm, suggests that the first step you need to take is to assess the workspace and locate any potential hazards or accident hotspots – and identify which employees would be most at risk.

“This should include not just the office space but external areas such as the kitchen and bathroom(s),” it claims in a 2016 article. “Look out for things like loose or exposed cables, uneven carpet or flooring, and any unnecessary obstructions in pathways. And even after a full inspection has been done, it’s important to keep an eye out for developing hazards.

“Encourage staff members to speak up if they spot something that doesn’t seem safe as many office accidents are the result of general wear-and-tear or a lack of vigilance.”

“Even with an open-door policy, some team members might not feel comfortable directly approaching you with an issue, so you could set up an anonymous suggestion box to help tackle complications before they escalate.”

It works both ways though. Communicate hazards you’ve seen as well, whether it’s through posted reminders across the office or an email to say the kitchen floor is slippery.

Don’t stop there. Dalton Wadkins director Alex Dalton emphasises the need to train everyone in the company – including yourself.

“Taking the time to run through the safety procedures, routines and order of service with your staff members can help to reassert yourself as a management figure – as well as refreshing your own memory too. Also, avoid routine and complacency like the plague.”

Existing routines, he says, leads to laziness – The odd fire alarm and first aid tests should keep everyone on their toes.

What if you end up with injured employees?

As Slater Heelis suggests, communication is key. Employees should know that informing you is their first port of call.

Once you’ve been told, seek someone who can administer the right medical attention.

Collecting information on the event and jotting it down will be necessary. This is because employers are required to report incidents to the HSE within 10 days.

RIDDOR reports – the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulation – can be made online. They are normally processed straight away.

If you don’t report on time, penalties could apply.