Unexpected Workplace Hazards
Most people are aware of the usual workplace safety hazards, like fire, electrical points and sharp objects protruding from walls or floors. What you might not take account of in your risk assessments are more innocuous-seeming threats - like the water cooler, or the air conditioning system. These are the homes of invisible threats, where extra care must be taken to protect employees from harm.
The Health & Safety Executive stipulates under The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 that employers must provide "an adequate supply of high-quality drinking water" in the workplace. Local authorities are responsible for the mains water supply, but it still might contain microscopic levels of toxic heavy metals such as mercury, lead, copper or arsenic, as well as biohazards. The government's Water Supply (Water Quality) Regulations 2018 stipulate, for example, that for such water to be deemed "wholesome", it must not contain "a concentration of the coliform bacteria or E-coli".
To get around this problem, it's common for many employers to install some type of water dispenser. However, surveys have discovered that the water in communal dispensers (such as those found in the workplace) often fails to comply with safety regulations. In 2007, for instance, levels of microbiological contaminant were already over 25%, alerting the public and the industry to the safety hazards posed by these installations. In addition, they're sometimes placed in areas that increase health and safety hazards, e.g. too close to toilet and washing facilities, or in areas of high human traffic where such bacteria might already proliferate.
It's therefore critical for employers to ensure that communal water dispensers are regularly and scrupulously cleaned, including the trays, taps, cups, pipework and casing. Filters must be regularly replaced and the unit placed in a sanitary position away from direct sunlight (which hastens bacterial growth). Everyone using the dispensers must ensure the strictest personal hygiene, avoiding direct contact with the components of the unit, and preferably cleaning and maintaining their own personal cup.
Asthma is one of the major causes of work-related illness, especially in environments where dust, pollen or chemical irritants are present. Climate change is also adding to the risks of occupational asthma, as we place greater reliance on indoor HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) to keep cool. Cold air exposure represents a trigger for some typical asthma symptoms like wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath. Prolonged exposure can worsen the condition of existing asthmatics, and may contribute to more serious lung infections.
Together with allergies and other respiratory disorders, air conditioning can also cause seemingly unrelated complaints such as headaches and arthritis. Filtration units in air conditioners may be beneficial for screening out allergenic spores and other irritants. However, inadequate ventilation and the presence of chemical cleaners will exacerbate the suffering of asthmatics. Employers should ensure the proper filtration, cleaning and maintenance of the HVAC to maintain optimal air quality, thereby helping also to reduce the risk of respiratory infections.
At WSS we take these factors into account when conducting risk assessments. We can help you identify even the most innocent-looking hazards in your work environment.