7 common workplace practices that put employee safety at risk

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Tuesday, 23 July, 2019 - 14:00
Industry news
National News

There are a number of commonly overlooked workplace practices which are putting the health and safety of employees at risk, according to SAI Global.

“Contrary to a common perception that compensation claims largely occur in physically labour-intensive workplaces, the latest data from Safe Work Australia reveals that 40 per cent of claims have been made by employees in administration, professional services, sales, community work and management,” said Rod Beath, Workplace Safety Spokesperson at SAI Global.

“Our audits reveal that risks are most significant in those organisations where management has not taken on board the company’s workplace health and safety policy, or have not included and consulted everyone in the company.

“Senior management need to be serious about their legislative obligation and look at reducing risks of physical and mental illness and injury to their workers.”

Beath said there are seven workplace hazards which are commonly overlooked by employers:

1. Heavy workloads and high stress levels. Work-related stress is the second most common compensated illness or injury in Australia, and can lead to physical symptoms such as headaches and fatigue, psychological symptoms such as anxiety, sleep loss and depression, or behavioural symptoms such as mood swings. These can contribute to long-term health complications such as sleep loss and even diabetes.

2. Concealed bullying and harassment. Bullying and harassment includes hurtful remarks, playing mind games, making one feeling undervalued, assigning pointless tasks that have nothing to do with a person’s job, giving impossible KPIs or jobs, changing work schedules to make it difficult for the employee, or being required to do humiliating things to be accepted in a team. Being at the receiving end of bullying and harassment can cause emotional trauma and lead to mental health injuries.

3. Basic clutter. Do staff need to meander around stacked boxes, plants, artworks, bags on floors or courier deliveries placed in access areas? These present trip or collision risks for anyone on the workplace, especially when they are distracted, carrying items or turning corners. Employers should organise regular workplace ‘housekeeping’ or inspections to identify potential obstacles that might create hazards.

4. Blocking fire safety equipment. Are bookshelves or tall furniture pieces blocking fire exits, sprinkler heads, fire hoses or fire hydrants? These can obstruct the use or efficiency of fire safety equipment in the case of an emergency. Management should ensure fire safety equipment has 1-metre-clear zones marked by signage, workplaces have regular safety inspections, and there is preventative maintenance in place for essential services.

5. Non-adjustable desks, chairs and monitors. Desks, chairs and monitors that can’t be adapted to employee needs can lead to injuries. Research led by the University of Sydney found that lower back pain accounts for a third of all work-related disability. While employers might be reluctant to incur the expense of ergonomic equipment, the cost of compensation claims as a can far outweigh the investment.

6. Extreme workplace temperatures. Are desks positioned beneath air-conditioning vents, or in draughts? Or is direct sunlight causing ‘hot spots’ in the office in summer? Ideally, interior workplaces should be a comfortable even temperature of 22 degrees in summer and 24 degrees in winter. Heat and cold stress can impact our health. An employee falling ill because they were forced to work in uncomfortable conditions can lead to days off work, and even a workers’ compensation claim.

7. An employer’s lack of commitment to safety. When staff are not educated about potential workplace hazards, risks and good safety practices, injuries and illnesses are more likely to occur. The relevant manager should take all staff through the company’s WHS policy and take practical steps to demonstrate that their safety is their priority. A safe culture is directly linked to productive workplaces. If a supervisor or manager does something unsafe, it’s likely that other workers will follow suit.

“Workplace safety is non-negotiable, no matter what industry you’re in,” said Beath.

“Not complying with the Workplace Health and Safety Act can result in thousands of dollars in litigation costs, a drain on resources, potential loss of time, illness an injuries, increased WorkCover claims, a damaged brand reputation – and, of greatest concern, potential fatalities.”