5 Health And Safety Issues Your Business Should Be Aware Of


We like to think that we’re well past the point of having to tell people to take health & safety seriously. Every business is obliged to carry out a health & safety risk assessment, and most do so happily, with both the employer and employees benefitting from a clear set of rules and protections. Here are 5 health and safety issues your business should be aware of:

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Some businesses, in my experience, still need a bit of cajoling, and a nudge in the right direction. The five health & safety issues below focus on some of the most common hazards in most workplaces, and what you can do to prevent them. While none of these pointers is an adequate substitute for a proper health & safety assessment and policy, they should at least give you an idea of what to look for.

Display screen equipment (DSE)

One of the most common - and most frequently ignored - issues in the average workplace is the positioning of display screen equipment, or DSE. DSE refers chiefly to the ergonomics of office desks, specifically the positioning of computer screens in relation to chairs and desks. However, DSE legislation can also refer to any form of screen, including phones and tablets, and the impact their use has on individuals in the workplace.

Screens which are positioned either too high or too low can lead to strain being placed on the neck and back of the user, which can lead to chronic muscle and spinal injuries. Similar problems are seen with people looking down at mobile phones, which is also an issue in our private lives. Long periods spent looking at computer screens can also cause eye strain and eventually permanent eye damage, again causing issues that will impact on productivity.

Investing in ergonomic workstations can reduce the incidence of these long-term chronic illnesses. This needn’t involve fancy standing desks, although these are an option, and can be as simple as buying a stand to raise the height of a monitor, or investing in better office chairs. Mandatory screen breaks (e.g. an afternoon tea/coffee break) meanwhile can reduce tiredness and eye fatigue, which may contribute to the typical late afternoon lull.

Slips, trips and falls

Slips, trips and falls are the second most common cause of workplace injuries in Ireland, and the single most common in the UK. This is perhaps because they are an ever-present hazard: whether it’s a trailing cable, jutting chair leg, an uneven surface or an item dropped on the floor, we are all prone to tripping over at some point. This is arguably more pertinent now that many people walk with their noses buried in their phones, reducing their environmental awareness.

Slips, trips and falls are a serious problem precisely because few people take them seriously. Many of us trip or slip but recover - in other words, we don’t injure ourselves - and then think little of it. In reality, we should be reporting any instance where we’ve almost injured ourselves, as the next person may not be so lucky. Even if we do trip and cause a minor injury, we might think that the blame is on us, and nurse a graze or cut without a second thought.

Slips, trips and falls are often a structural problem - inadequate maintenance of floors and surfaces, poor safety protocols etcetera - but they are also a cultural one. Health & safety awareness training is perhaps the best way to inform employees of the dangers of slips, trips and falls, and the benefits of proper reporting. By empowering your workforce to spot problems early, you’ll ultimately ensure a safer and more productive workplace.

Recommended reading: How To Manage Asbestos As A Small Business

Air quality

If you work with materials which produce any sort of dust or vapours, you should already be aware of exposure limits, known as Short Term Exposure Limits (STELs) in Ireland and Workplace Exposure Limits (WELs) in the UK. Most substances have legally defined exposure limits, which regulate how many particles per million (ppm) you can safely inhale in a given period. The most common forms of exposure include wood dust, flour and volatile cleaning products.

While cleaning products may certainly pose a danger in your average office environment, most WELs are more closely linked to industries like construction and manufacturing. However, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take air quality seriously in a seemingly safe workplace. Indoor air quality can have a serious effect on people’s health wherever they work, and this can subsequently have a knock-on effect on performance. 

Workplaces in pollution blackspots (e.g. near traffic-clogged roads) can bring this bad air indoors, while the heavy use of cheap cleaning products and poor maintenance of air conditioning units can make it even worse. This poor quality air can cause or exacerbate breathing difficulties, headaches and tiredness, as well as reducing concentration and contributing to other illnesses. Some roles may also require training under Ireland's Chemicals Act 2008 or the UK's COSHH regulations, including cleaners, salon workers, and anyone else handling potentially dangerous chemical substances.

One simple way to solve these air quality issues is to introduce indoor plants to the workplace. Research commissioned by NASA identified some of the best plants for purifying indoor air, with peace lilies being particularly adept at removing volatile particles, and producing plenty of oxygen. Just a few potted plants in a small building can significantly improve indoor air quality, and contribute to a healthier and more productive workplace.

Asbestos exposure

I know what you’re thinking: is asbestos really a common issue for most workplaces? It may come as a shock, but both Ireland and the UK spent around half a century importing hundreds of thousands of tonnes of asbestos, and very little of it has left the country. Whether it’s contaminating brownfield sites or lurking inside thousands of old buildings, asbestos remains a real and present danger in 2019.

Asbestos was widely used as a building material through to the late 1980s, and was only fully banned in 1999. It was most popular as an insulating material in wall cavities and around pipes and boilers, but also made its way into everything from toilet seats and cisterns to roof tiles to Artex textures on walls and ceilings. If you work in an old building, the chances are that there’s asbestos somewhere, even if it’s out of sight.

All businesses should conduct a survey if there’s any suspicion that asbestos might be present, and if there is, maintain and frequently update an asbestos register. Most asbestos poses no immediate danger if it is in a stable form, such as in a ceiling texture or other area where it is not likely to be disturbed. 

However, there is always the chance of accidental damage or degradation. If there is any form of asbestos on your property, you should ideally provide asbestos awareness training to your employees to ensure they can identify asbestos-containing materials, and know the risks of disturbing them.

Mental health

The ‘health’ in health & safety is often overlooked in favour of physical hazards, and mental health has traditionally been its most neglected aspect. A recent climate of openness towards mental health issues is changing this, however, and the uptake of mental health awareness training is being borne out by statistics. Recent news from the UK reports that as many as 1 in 100 adults now have some form of mental health training, while businesses such as Specsavers are also adopting this approach in Ireland.

Mental health in the workplace can be a serious issue for employees, who can then become a burden on the business. Traditionally, individuals would feel ashamed to talk about these problems, either stemming from their work (heavy workload, interpersonal issues, lack of satisfaction) or their personal lives (relationships, finances, etc.). These problems would snowball as they struggled to keep things together, impacting on their concentration and motivation, and potentially leading to a breakdown.

Mental health awareness training is a good start, but can be a sticking plaster on a broader issue. Conditions in the workplace are often a contributor to poor mental health, and many businesses could do more to be more accommodating to employees. More frequent breaks, occasional ‘work from home’ days, lunch outings and spaces for people to relax can all help to alleviate everyday stress - as can the redistribution of workloads and fairer pay for those on the lowest rungs. Ultimately, investing in people’s happiness reaps its own rewards, as recidivism is reduced and employees are incentivised to work harder.

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