Health and safety in the office – the basics

When you think of health and safety in the office, you might picture someone falling over stray wires or electronics zapping employees accidentally. However, did you know that another health and safety aspect, which is often overlooked, is having a massive affect on the British economy?

Poor basic hygiene in UK offices cost the British economy £13.7 billion in 2013, due to workers taking time off sick (£4.2 billion) and by affecting their time whilst at work (£9.5 billion). Time wasted as a result of poor hygiene includes time spent washing dirty dishes or going further to find a washroom with suitable facilities, for example.

These findings have come to light through a report conducted by the Centre for Economic and Business Research (CEBR). Anyone who works in an office will know that colds and flu wreak havoc across the UK, with people working in close proximity and high humidity levels providing optimum conditions for viruses and bacteria to spread. During the winter months, bugs such as the Norovirus can cause major disruptions to businesses, with the report finding it can affect up to 40% of staff in some cases. The report is based on a study of 1,000 office workers in the UK.

In comparison, the Department for Work and Pensions found more than 130 million days are lost every year to sickness absence in Great Britain, costing the national economy £100 billion a year. Therefore, time taken off sick due to poor hygiene accounts for 4.5% of this figure.

So what can firms do to adopt a better approach to personal hygiene in the workplace? Here are some suggestions:

  • In the kitchen – bugs and bacteria can live on food preparation surfaces and can be transmitted from surface to hand, hand to mouth or by infected food. Good hand washing and drying products can help to minimise the risk of infection, as well as regular cleaning of the space.
  • Desks – surface sanitisers can kill germs that have landed on desks or been transferred there from people. The average computer mouse contains more than three times the levels of bacteria-related contamination found on the average toilet seat.
  • Meeting rooms – door handles and table surfaces in common areas are germ hotspots. Again these need to be sanitised regularly to minimise the spread of germs.
  • Corridors – high footfall can mean germs are in abundance here, air disinfection units will also help reduce airborne micro organisms.
  • Toilets – hotspots here include toilets, flush handles and cubicle handles. All types of bacteria may live on these surfaces with the spread of infection controlled by surface and flush sanitisers and toilet cleaners.


The research highlighted some unhygienic habits of office workers, with 1 in 10 using their mobile in the toilet and nearly 1 in 20 reading a work document in there. Over a quarter admitted to not washing their hands every time they visit the washroom. Are you guilty of any of these behaviours which greatly increase the chance of bacteria spreading through the workforce?

The hygiene aspect of health and safety usually gets forgotten about, but it’s an important part of everyday office life. After all, it’s actually enforceable by law, with the Environmental Protection Act 1990 stating employers have an obligation to provide suitable waste facilities and means of washing for their staff. Other legislation, such as the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, outlines rules for washrooms in the workplace.