The Government's campaign for health and safety reform has made it clear that there is an increased focus on high risk industries such as forestry, agriculture, manufacturing and construction.
While that may be the case, it is important to remember that health and safety legislation applies equally to white collar industries. While it may be tempting to dismiss the risks faced by office workers as being limited to paper cuts, in fact there are real and serious hazards in white collar industries, both physical and mental.
The typical hazards which can arise in white collar industries are workplace stress and fatigue, bullying and occupational overuse syndrome. These can have a significant impact on workers' health and wellbeing.
While all workers, regardless of industry, have the potential to be exposed to these types of hazards, these are hazards common in an office environment. Employers need to have effective systems in place to manage these hazards. Failure to appropriately manage these hazards could result in legal liability including a prosecution under health and safety legislation and/or a personal grievance claim by affected employees.
Stress can mean different things to different people. It can be work-related or relate to things that are going on at home or a combination of both. Some work is intrinsically stressful and other work may be stressful because it is poorly organised and places unreasonable demands on an individual. Whatever the meaning, stress can result in a person being unable to carry on working safely.
In 2005, the Nelson engineering firm Nalder and Biddle became the first company in New Zealand to be convicted under health and safety legislation for failing to provide a safe working environment, after an employee broke down from work-related stress. Numerous other personal grievance claims have been raised with workplace stress the cornerstone of the claim.
Some of the steps employers can take to identify and manage stressors in the workplace include:
- Identify stressors in the workplace and in particular identifying which stressors are avoidable
- Strive for a healthy work environment
- Take complaints of workplace stress seriously
- Ensure appropriate breaks are taken, consider how work is performed and ensure adequate staffing levels
If an issue of workplace stress is raised, an employer should investigate it and, where appropriate, take steps to provide support and address any issues identified.
Earlier this year WorkSafe NZ issued guidelines on how to prevent and respond to workplace bullying noting that bullying was prevalent in New Zealand workplaces and needs to be addressed.
There have been prosecutions under health and safety legislation in Australia in cases involving workplace bullying. In 2010, for example, a café, its owner and three staff were ordered to pay a total of AUD$335,000 after bullying another employee to the point where she committed suicide.
While there have been no similar prosecutions in New Zealand, statistics suggest that bullying allegations feature prominently in personal grievances heard by the Employment Relations Authority. WorkSafe NZ's guidelines may well signal that a bullying prosecution under health and safety legislation will be contemplated in the future should an appropriate case arise.
Steps businesses should take to manage the risk of workplace bullying include:
- Have a bullying policy with a process for making complaints
- Provide appropriate training for staff and managers on dealing with bullying
- Take all complaints of bullying seriously and investigate them
If bullying has occurred, employers are expected to take appropriate steps to address this. This could include disciplinary action against the perpetrator(s) up to and including dismissal.
Occupational overuse syndrome
Occupational overuse syndrome (OOS) covers a range of conditions and injuries which are usually characterised by discomfort or pain. OOS develops over time and it is usually caused or aggravated by a worker's workstation or equipment, the way a task is designed, excessive workloads, insufficient breaks and/or inadequate training in the correct use of equipment.
In an office environment, workers may spend long periods typing or looking at their computer screen. Repetitive or static activities like this should incorporate rest breaks and micropauses, and tools and equipment should be arranged to avoid tense or undesirable postures.
WorkSafe NZ has guidelines for the prevention and management of OOS. It recommends employers continually investigate and monitor the work practices and job design, assess the condition of the equipment and environment and measure the prevalence of early warning symptoms of OOS.
Workers should also be encouraged to report any OOS issues promptly and of course these should then be properly addressed by the employer.
While it may be easier to focus on controlling "traditional" hazards in the workplace, employers must not forget the need for controls and monitoring around stress, fatigue, bullying and OOS.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.