Occupational Safety In An Agile Work Environment

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For employers, improving efficiency often means streamlining. Achieving “more with less” involves helping employees achieve better results and more ideas through creating inspiring workspaces and more collaborative work environments.  On average, employees make up approximately 80% of a company’s annual costs, so increasing productivity is the best way to secure the future viability of the company.

This is evident in today’s offices, where the traditional office workplace where everyone has their own desk is increasingly being replaced by desk-sharing, agile working and the use of open plan spaces. “Agile work” refers to using efficient “multi-space” offices, home offices, co-working centres, external meetings and project work. As a rule, desk-sharing also forms part of an agile working environment.  This will also include areas for concentrated work and collaborative work, often balanced by “fun zones”, typically with table football, lounges and extended kitchen zones.

However, productivity research and workplace regulations are based on the traditional office workplace, and do not really address these newer types of workspaces.  The science of office ergonomics, developed over decades, has faded into the background.

Workplace assessments

Many companies carry out workplace assessments only when it becomes absolutely necessary to do so. Compared to industrial production, the productivity of office staff is very difficult to measure, so meeting the minimum requirements set by the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 and Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations is viewed as a chore that will not contribute to wider gains.

The DSE questionnaire is often filled out as part of a formal risk assessment, and is not seen as providing information to contribute to improvements in the ergonomic design of the office environment. For instance, the working environment includes the surfaces, acoustics, lighting, heating and ventilation, yet the worker is only asked whether they are “comfortable” or not, ignoring the opportunity to improve other factors that impact on both wellbeing and productivity.

The Workplace Regulations 1992, as updated in 2013, apply to all workplaces, not just offices. But they are also fairly general, with plenty of room for interpretation, or indeed setting a low bar. In Germany, in contrast, there are direct specifications and detailed recommendation published by the DGUV, the association representing German insurers and “Berufsgenossenchaften”, the sectoral social insurance bodies that all employers must join. “Desktops and office workstations guidelines for design” (DGUV Information 215-410) contains detailed specifications that allow the responsible person to “measure” if the guidelines are being followed.

Global differences

Different countries also evaluate office space differently. The HSE’s Approved Code of Practice amplifying Regulation 10 of the Workplace Regulations suggests a guide of 11m3  per employee, calculated from the floor to the ceiling height. In a room with a height of 2.40m, an area of 4.6m2 would be required. In other words, the higher the ceiling, the smaller the floor space required. 

In other European countries, such as Germany, space requirements are specified according to office type and the number of people in the room. The requirement for the ceiling height (based on the German realisation of EU law in national law, workplace directive (ArbStättV) of EG workplace directive 89/654/EWG) is calculated on the basis of the number of employees in the room, and reflects the volume of air needed. The minimum floor area of a work station (including furniture) should be 8m2. Depending on the type of office, space requirements can increase to up to 12 m2 or 15m2 in an open-plan office, including pathways and shared areas such as lounges or meeting rooms.

Ergonomics and wellbeing

In the UK, employers are obliged to carry out workplace risk assessments, which includes the assessment of psychosocial risk. Statistics from health insurers and others have shown increases in mental stress for some years. Yet from practical experience I know that If employees are not involved very early in the development of new workspaces or organisation, they often resist it. This often includes resistance to open-plan offices by claiming that there would be acoustic problems, although in reality, for example, the noise level is lower than it was previously. Therefore it is worth bearing in mind that if you are measuring the acoustics in open plan spaces because of claims made by employees, you will find only approximately 40% of measurements show a physical impact (e.g. headaches caused by noise) and approximately 60% are based on the inner resistance of the employees (psychological). That´s our experience of measurement in the field in Germany.

Many companies now use wellbeing programs as a tool to support their hiring strategies and corporate reputation, both in the UK and Europe as a whole. But they need to recognize that the employer’s responsibility does not stop at the walls of their building, and ensure that external workplaces, including home offices or co-working spaces, are properly equipped and risk assessed.

A holistic view of the office workspace is an essential success factor for increasing the productivity of employees. Holistic ergonomics in the office, wherever the office may be, is vital to wellbeing and preventing psychosocial risk. However, in comparison to the development of research and standards in other areas, many of the effects of changing organisational forms are still unknown. There are many things about new/ future work with technologies and organisation where we don´t know how they will influence health and wellbeing of people e.g the use of mobile devices, big screens/ screen walls, being online 24hrs, working more independently etc. We need more research to be able to revisit the regulations and at the same time we must focus more on the ergonomics we know today instead of only focusing on agile working output and uncritical use of latest technologies (like smartphones used by three years old child).

Jöerg Bakschas is a workspace specialist, change coach and design thinker at Adapt Global Group.  
He is a member of several European committees working on standards for the office.


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