Save and protect lives

As the largest public service union UNISON is at the forefront of campaigns on issues such as stress at work and violence in the workplace. Many of our members are also at risk from problems such as:

  • RSI from keyboarding or working in call centres
  • Back pain from lifting and carrying people and heavy loads
  • Insufficient training and equipment

You can download a printable H&S info sheet here pdf logo or browse the section below.

Workplace Health and Safety Reps

To be effective in our fight for safe working conditions we need people in every work place to act as advisors and watchdogs on health and safety issues.

You'll get full training and support from UNISON as well as paid time off to carry out your union role.  Find out more about becoming a health and safety rep by contacting your local steward, the UNISON Health & Safety Officer or Branch Office.

Health and safety guides


Cancer will affect one in every three people at some time in their life.
It is a disease that affects the cells in the body. It arises when the process of cell reproduction gets out of control, with cells continuing to divide and develop into a tumour.

Often these tumours are harmless or are only a problem if they put pressure on surrounding organs. However, in some cases, the tumour can spread beyond its original site and start to destroy the surrounding tissues. These malignant tumours are cancerous.

There are hundreds of different kinds of cancer.

The vast majority affect the covering or lining of organs (including the skin). These are carcinomas.

The other main types are sarcomas, found in bone and connective tissue, lymphomas of the bone marrow or lymph glands, or leukaemia, cancer of the blood.

Cancer is treated by surgery, drugs (chemotherapy) or x-rays and other radiation (radiotherapy). Sometimes a combination is used.

Both chemotherapy and radiotherapy have side effects, including nausea, tiredness, lack of appetite, diarrhoea, and weight loss. Chemotherapy can also cause hair loss.

These side effects vary depending on the person and the treatment, but are generally temporary. A small number of people do have long term health problems after radiotherapy.

Between 5% and 25% of cancers, in particular many lung cancers are caused by occupational exposure. However, it is not the intention of this briefing to deal with occupational exposure to cancer causing substances.

This briefing is intended to highlight some of the general issues that should be considered, although any UNISON member experiencing cancer will have very specific problems that must be addressed individually.

Separate advice on sickness and absence is contained in UNISON’s guide to sickness absence monitoring.

People with cancer often experience considerable prejudice from both managers and colleagues. Often this is a result of misunderstanding about the nature of cancer, or simply irrational fear.

However, it may result in members hiding their illness from their employer. Members with a history of cancer may also be unwilling to divulge the fact to their employer, or to a future employer, because they will fear the possible reaction.

Most, but not all people with cancer, are covered by the Disability Discrimination Act.

One of the serious weaknesses of the Disability Discrimination Act is the definition of disabled people that it chooses. Only a person who has a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day to day activities is protected from employment discrimination under the act.

People who have had an impairment in the past are treated as disabled for the purposes of the act, as are people whose condition is controlled by medication. However, people with a progressive condition, which will eventually have a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day to day activities, are not covered until they begin to show some symptoms.

The result of this definition is that the act covers:
people who have had cancer in the past
people who have cancer and have started to develop symptoms
people who have cancer and would have symptoms if it were not for medical treatment
people who have cancer but have not yet started to develop any symptoms are not covered until they start to suffer symptoms

The Disability Discrimination Act makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate against a disabled person in certain areas:
in recruitment procedures
in the terms on which employment is offered
by refusing to offer, or deliberately not offering employment
in the terms of employment for people already employed
in opportunities for promotion, transfer, or training, or refusing to offer such opportunities
by dismissing the disabled person, or causing them any other detriment

The law outlines discrimination in three ways:
by treating a disabled person less favourably, for a reason related to her/his disability than they treat, or would treat, others who do not have that disability
by not making reasonable adjustments to recruit, retain, or develop the career of someone who is disabled (A reasonable adjustment can take different forums. It can be an adaptation to the work premises or equipment, or the provision of special equipment, or the reorganisation of the job. What is reasonable will vary from one employer to another. Generally speaking, the larger the employer and the greater its resources, the more it will be expected to do)
by victimisation. This is the only part of the act where one does not have to be disabled to be protected. Victimising anyone for using the act or supporting someone using the act is unlawful

Under the Disability Discrimination Act employers must provide reasonable adjustments for most members with a cancer diagnoses. Adjustments are not just physical alterations. They can also be changes to working practices.

Some employers and colleagues have mistaken ideas about the impact of cancer or its treatment on work. It is true that some people may suffer fatigue or pain, or need to take time off for treatment, and this section deals with these issues. Many people with cancer, however, adopt a carry on as normal strategy, and not being moved to lighter duties or adjusting their work is important for them.

The first type of adjustment a member with a cancer diagnoses may need is time off. This may be time off for treatment, or to cope with fatigue or pain.

Members with cancer may need to take some time away from work, especially if they have physically demanding jobs. This may take the form of sickness absence, fewer working hours per day or fewer days per week.

Sick pay arrangements will vary depending on the service, and the national or local agreements covering the member. However, it is important that the member has accurate information on their sick pay and benefits options before making any decisions on their future. Advice on benefits can usually be obtained from either a medical social worker or a Citizen’s Advice Bureau.

The second main type of adjustment a member with a diagnoses of cancer may need is a change of duties. This is particularly likely to be the case where the member has a very demanding job.

It may be appropriate for the member to move temporary to another job altogether, or it may be that only one element of the job is causing problems, in which case the job could possibly be redesigned.

Where major changes are necessary it may be that colleagues will be required to be told something of the personal situation of the member. Where this is done no move should be taken by either the employer or the UNISON representative without consulting the member with cancer.

After treatment, a member who has had cancer may have a permanent impairment, such as the loss of an organ or limb. It may be necessary for the employer to make adjustments to enable the member to continue working or to return to work. These adjustments could include adapting premises or equipment. The Employment Service offers a number of services which might be of help to employers needing to make these adjustments.

These are:
Placement Assessment and Counselling Teams (PACTs) - these are based in job centres and help employers with advice on recruiting and retaining disabled employees. They can also put employers in touch with the Employment Medical Advisory Service for more detailed advice
The Access to Work Scheme - this reimburses the employers of disabled people with up to eighty per cent of the cost of any help that the employee needs because of a disability
The Job Introduction Scheme - this provides grants to employers who take on disabled employees for a trail period
The Supported Placement Scheme - this helps people with severe impairments to work in open employment alongside non-disabled people


UNISON has provided detailed advice to branches on the Disability Discrimination Act, and on sickness absence monitoring. However, support from outside organisations will also probably be required.


Eye tests and VDUs

Out of 6 million VDU 'users' in the UK, only one in five have exercised their legal right to an eye test paid for by their employers.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) states that there is no reliable evidence that display screen equipment (DSE) work causes any permanent damage to the eyes or eyesight, but it may make those with pre-existing vision defects more aware of them. If these are not corrected, temporary visual fatigue and headaches may occur.

However, there is mounting evidence which suggests that visual display units (VDUs) may cause actual eye damage. For example in America and Japan, temporary visual impairment is officially recognised as an occupational health problem.

In Denmark the Association of Computer Professionals has concluded that many screen-based workers become short-sighted. They believe that this is due to the eyes focusing at the same distance for too many hours.

Out of 6 million VDU ‘users’ in the UK, only one in five have exercised their legal right to an eye test paid for by their employer. Many are not aware of their entitlement. Some employers are also confused about who is entitled. Others try to avoid the costs of complying with the law.

Regulation 1 of the DSE Regulations states that a ‘user’ is:
an employee who habitually uses [DSE] as a significant part of his [or her] normal work.

A ‘user’ may work from home. Some ‘users’ will be obvious. Where they are not obvious, criteria in the Guidance to the Regulations will assist in identifying them. If most or all of the following criteria are met, the employee is a ‘user’:
DSE is necessary for the job, as alternative means are not readily available
there is no choice over the use of DSE
significant training and/or specific skills in the use of the DSE are required
the employee normally users DSE for continuous spells of an hour or more at a time
DSE is used more or less daily
the fast transfer of information between the employee and screen is an important requirement of the job
the performance requirements of the system demand high levels of attention and concentration by the user, for example, where the consequence of error may be critical

Examples of ‘users’ given in the Guidance include: secretaries; data input operators, community care workers, librarians, scientists, secretaries, telephone operators, and receptionists.

Regulation 1 defines DSE not only as visual display units (VDUs), that is computers, but also microfiche readers, and control screens.

It does not include: screens whose main use is to show television or film pictures, screens on board a means of transport or mainly intended for public use, window typewrites with just a few lines of text, equipment with a small measurement display such as calculators or cash registers, or portable systems unless they are in prolonged use.

Regulation 5 requires employers to provide, on request, an appropriate eye and eyesight test for ‘users’ or those who will shortly become ‘users’.

All eye and eyesight tests must be:
carried out by a competent person, either a doctor or optician with ophthalmic qualifications
carried out as soon as practicable after being requested where the employee is already a ‘user’, and where not already a ‘user’ before the employee becomes a ‘user’
without cost to the employee

‘Users’ should be provided with tests at regular intervals, but cannot be compelled to take one. The optician or doctor will be able to advise how frequently these tests should be. It may vary between individuals.

Employers must also provide, on request, tests for users who experience visual difficulties, which may reasonably be considered to be related to DSE work, for example headaches, eyestrain, or difficulty in focussing.

Regulation 7 requires employers to ensure that all DSE ‘users’ are aware of their right to ask for a free eye test. But note that employees must request eye and eyesight tests.

There is no requirement for employers to provide them automatically. UNISON believes that employers should allow paid time off to attend these tests during working hours.

Vision Screening Tests
Vision screening tests such as ‘keystone’ tests are not full eyesight tests. Whilst they identify individuals with defective vision who require a full sight test, they do not screen for eye defects, such as injury or disease which have not yet begun to affect vision. They do not fulfil the requirements of the regulations, and ‘users’ who request a full test must be given one.

If the test results show that glasses are needed 'solely'  for DSE work, employers must pay the cost of these corrective appliances. The employer may specify where ‘special’ corrective appliances are purchased.

The regulations also state that the employer need only meet the cost of a basic adequate pair. If ‘users’ want more expensive pairs or optional treatments, the employer need only provide a basic pair or it may choose to part pay for a more expensive pair, but only to the value of a basic pair.

Taking regular breaks away from DSE work is also important for relaxing the eyes. Regulation 4 requires employers to plan the activities of ‘users’ so that their DSE work is periodically interrupted by breaks or changes of activity.

The more intensive the work, the more frequently breaks are required. Where possible, ‘users’ should be allowed to take breaks when they need them. Where this is not possible, or unlikely due to pressure of work, an agreement on DSE work breaks should be drawn up.

The Guidance to the Regulations says that breaks should be taken before the onset of fatigue, not in order to recuperate, and when performance is at a maximum.

Taking breaks should not mean that the same amount of work needs to be done in less time. Short frequent breaks are preferable to longer occasional breaks, and if possible they should be taken away from the screen.

Studies seem to suggest that changes of work activity, rather than formal rest breaks are more effective in relieving eye strain. Of course, this fact should have no detrimental affect on formal tea breaks.

They are not covered by this information sheet, but employers are also legally required: to assess and reduce risks of DSE work, to ensure that workstations meet minimum requirements, and to provide training and information.

UNISON believes that anyone working with DSE (not just regular ‘users’) should have regular eye tests by qualified opticians, which are paid for by their employer, and with paid time off to attend during working hours.

If a test shows that they need corrective spectacles, then the employer should meet reasonable costs. Good employers will provide for this, whether they have to or not.


Fire safety

This information sheet aims to give safety reps a basic understanding of fire safety and fire risk assessments under the current law. More detailed information applicable to specific types of workplace is available from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

Under the Fire Precautions Act 1971, offices, shops, and factories must have a fire certificate:
if there are more than 20 people at work,
if there are more than 10 working other than on the ground floor,
if it is within a shared building where the total number of people at work fulfil either of the previous 2 criteria,
if explosive or highly flammable materials are stored, or used in or under a factory.

A fire certificate will specify what fire precautions must be taken for the workplace concerned; including: escape routes; signs; emergency lighting; alarms; fire fighting equipment; the number of persons allowed on the premises at the same time; and any requirement for training employees.

Safety reps are entitled to see a copy of the fire certificate and should ensure that the employer is meeting all of its requirements.

Different regulations apply to other workplaces. Nursing and Residential Care Homes must meet similar fire safety requirements as offices, and in particular satisfactory arrangements must be made for the evacuation of patients and staff. Hospitals and NHS Trusts must conform to the requirements of Firecode. Shops, offices, and factories within hospitals come under the 1971 Act which means that a fire certificate may be required. Children’s and community homes must carry out fire dwells and practices, and must consult with the fire authorities. Schools must reasonably assure the health, safety, and safe escape of their occupants.

Virtually all workplaces, including all those mentioned above, must now have fire risk assessments conducted, in accordance with the Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations 1997 (as amended in 1999) and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations.

Employers must carry out fire risk assessments (specifically or as part of their general risk assessments):
to identify fire hazards (combustible materials or sources of ignition, for example);
to assess the risks of fire;
considering: - all employees and others who may be affected by a workplace fire and in particular those who might be especially at risk, and - structural features which might promote the spread of fire (such a s ducts and flues, openings in floors and walls);
to check whether existing arrangements are satisfactory or need improvement (for example can a fire be detected in a reasonable time and can all the people at risk be warned);
to put into place measures to remove or reduce the risks identified, including adequate provision for people with disabilities or special needs who use or may be present at the premises

The findings of the risk assessment must be recorded if more than 5 people are employed. The risk assessment must be reviewed whenever there is reason to suspect that it is no longer valid or if there has been a significant change in the matters to which it relates. A significant change would include a structural alteration, or a change in the route of fire escapes.

Employers must also:
provide and maintain such fire precautions as are necessary to safe guard those at work, as determined by the fire risk assessment. The fire precautions may include: - fire fighting equipment, detectors, and alarms, - non-automatic fire-fighting equipment must be readily accessible, easy to use, and indicated by signs, - nominating and training employees responsible for implementing fire fighting measures and for undertaking any special roles which are required under the emergency plan for the workplace, - a suitable system of regularly servicing and maintaining fire equipment , and - keeping emergency routes clear and complying with specific criteria relating to routes, doors, and signs so that those in the building can get out;
provide information, instruction, and training to all employees about fire risks and precautions in the workplace so that they know what to do in the event of a fire.
consult with safety reps about: - the nomination of ‘responsible’ employees, - proposals for improving fire safety, - and fire risk assessments;
inform other employers in the same building of any significant risks they have identified which might affect the safety of their employees, and co-operate on proposals to reduce and control these risks;
establish a suitable and easy means of contacting the emergency services;
notify the fire authority before making changes to the workplace fire precautions after a risk assessment, if the workplace requires a fire certificate and the proposed change affects the terms and conditions of this certificate. Examples include: extensions or structural alterations, alterations to the internal arrangement, or to the arrangement of furniture or equipment which effect the means of escape.

Remember your rights to consultation under the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations, and the Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations and use them.

Ask to see a copy of the Fire Certificate, and the Fire Risk Assessment - have the requirements in both been met?

Use the checklist below to check both the Fire Certificate and the Fire Risk Assessment, and to carry out a workplace inspection.

Liaise with fire officers when they visit your workplace and ask for a copy of any report they produce.

Remember to speak to the employees they often know far more about potential hazards (such as the waste materials which accumulate in the basement next to the fire exit before collection day).

The local fire authorities are generally responsible for fire safety at work. For further advice, contact the local fire service and ask for the Fire Prevention Officer.

New guidance produced by the HSE, Fire Safety - An employer’s guide, gives comprehensive advice on fire risk assessment, fire precautions, and information about the new law, including employers’ rights and responsibilities. It is available, priced £9.95, from: HSE Books, P.O. Box 1999, Sudbury, Suffolk, CO10 6FS. Tel: 01787 881165. Safety Reps should encourage their employers to buy a copy and then ask to have a look at it.

Risk Assessments and Fire Certificates
has an assessment of fire risks been conducted
have the results been acted upon
does it need to be reviewed
has an emergency plan been drawn up (if required)
is there a fire certificate;
have all the conditions been complied with
have there been significant changes which should be notified to the local fire authority
are safety reps consulted before changes are made to work or to the workplace which could effect the health and safety of employees

The Workplace
are separate storage arrangements for flammable chemicals, gas cylinders, and waste materials available and clearly marked
is combustible waste regularly and safely disposed of
if smoking is allowed in the workplace, are there satisfactory arrangements for cigarettes and matches to be disposed of safely and separately from other combustible rubbish
are clear fire instructions displayed throughout the workplace
is electrical equipment serviced regularly to prevent sparks and fires
have sources of ignition (e.g. portable heaters) been replaced with safer alternatives

Fire Drills
are they carried out regularly and at least once per year (preferably once every 6 months)
does their timing and frequency take into account staff turnover, staff working outside of normal hours, or staff in isolated parts of the workplace
are non-employees such as patients, residents, pupils, contractors, etc. included
are particular arrangements necessary for the evacuation of people with disabilities, the elderly, the sick, and young children
are they observed by designated staff who report on how long it took to evacuate the workplace, what went correctly and what went wrong, and are faults put right before the next drill
does management keep records of drills and training with details of any problems found and the action taken to put them right

Fire Alarms
are they checked and tested once per week by a trained person and annually by a competent engineer
are they capable of warning all employees - for example what about employees in the basement
are maintenance and servicing records kept
are there other forms of fire warning, such as flashing lights for hearing-impaired staff or visitors, etc

Smoke Detectors
are they checked and tested once per week by a trained person and annually by a competent engineer
are maintenance and servicing records kept

Fire Fighting Equipment
are there trained staff who know how and what to use - generally, untrained staff should not waste time trying to make equipment work and even trained staff should not attempt to fight large fires
are suitable fire extinguishers provided in vehicles, and are drivers trained to use them
are they checked at least monthly, removed and replaced without delay if faulty, with a full check and test by a competent engineer annually
are fire extinguishers refilled after use and tested annually by a trained person
are maintenance and servicing records kept

Training for Employees
are all employees given information, instruction, and training by a competent person on: - fire risks and precautions to be taken to avoid fire, - what to do if they discover a fire, - raising the alarm, including location of alarm call points, - recognising the fire alarm and what to do when it is raised, - calling the fire brigade, - evacuation procedures, including arrangements for members of the public, and people with disabilities, and - escape routes, fire exits, and assembly areas
some employees will need additional training about special risks in their workplace, for example staff in: - kitchens and laboratories, or - electrical and maintenance engineers
employees designated in emergency plans to supervise evacuations and fire drills or nominated as persons to use fire fighting equipment will need additional special training for these roles, including: - the location, choice, and use of fire fighting equipment, and - the means of ensuring that everyone has left the building

Fire Escape Routes
is emergency lighting provided and tested regularly, with a full check and test by a competent engineer annually
are maintenance and servicing records kept
are they clearly signed
are they kept clear and are they wide enough to prevent a crush
do they lead quickly and directly to a safe area (within 2-3 minutes - includes a fire resistant staircase), and not for example into an enclosed yard
do they take account of elderly, sick, or disabled people or young children who may be on the premises

Fire Doors and Exists
are they clearly marked
are they kept clear on both sides at all times
do they lead quickly to a safe area - and not for example into an enclosed yard
do they open in the direction of escape (must not be sliding or revolving)
are they easily and quickly unlocked in the event of fire, by 'panic bars' for example (they must not be locked by a key or similar device during working hours)
are they kept closed (fire-resisting doors are specially constructed and placed to hold back fire and allow time for people to escape, so they must never be left or propped open)



Gloves are a form of personal protective equipment. They should therefore be provided free of charge, and must be suitable for their purpose.

However what a lot of people forget is that Protective Equipment should be used only as a last resort and only after the employer has looked at removing the hazard, substitution (i.e. replacing it with a safer alternative), and other methods of control. Only after all of these have been considered and implemented should gloves be considered.

In practice gloves can be a very useful piece of safety equipment where work involves sharp objects, chemical or biological hazards, wet, cold or hot work. Unfortunately many gloves are inappropriate for their purpose, and some introduce new hazards.

This briefing is intended to alert branches to some of the issues that they should consider where gloves are concerned.

Gloves should be the right size and the right type for the work involved. There are thousands of different gloves on the market. The list below covers a few of the main types:

Disposable latex gloves are often used by nurses, laboratory workers, and first-aiders. They are made from natural rubber and are a major cause of allergic contact dermatitis. The allergy is triggered by a protein in the latex. Someone can use these gloves for years and then suddenly develop an allergy. This means that they could then get a reaction whenever they touch rubber. In extreme cases, the person can react so strongly that they fall unconscious. High quality gloves are processed to reduce the levels of protein. Cheaper gloves are usually a greater danger. Manufacturers should be asked to give information on the levels of free protein in their products.

Powdered latex gloves are by far the most dangerous. They contain corn starch which binds to the protein making it more easily absorbed. Also the dust, if breathed in, can cause asthma. UNISON believes that these gloves should never be used.

Disposable latex gloves should only be used as a temporary barrier against infection as oils and solvents quickly weaken them. They also puncture easily.
Flock lined rubber gloves are fine if used with detergents or water for cleaning. If mild solvents are used then nitrile rubber should be used.

Cotton lined PVC gloves are used as protection against splinters, sharp edges, and wet objects. They are used in some refuse collection, grounds maintenance, and amenity horticulture work. They do not give sufficient protection against sharps, where stronger gloves are needed

Viton rubber gloves are often used when dealing with solvents. However they are not intended for general use when handling these chemicals, and are for splash protection only.

Specialist gloves. There are a variety available, including chain mail gloves, polyurethane, and cushioned gloves. These usually have a very particular role, such as preventing static, or reducing the effects of vibration. However, if any of them are being used, UNISON branches should always check to see if the hazard can be removed, substituted, or controlled by other means beforehand.

Gloves fail for a variety of reasons. One of the other reasons gloves fail is that people are not told how to use them. Few employers will provide training in correct technique, despite it being a legal requirement. This means that gloves are often taken off, cleaned, or stored incorrectly, so that the skin can become contaminated or the hazard can get inside the glove. In addition, gloves are often used for the wrong purpose.

Pin-prick holes are quite common in all latex gloves. Simply blowing a glove up will not necessarily show that the glove is damaged enough to let in a virus. This is why gloves alone are not sufficient protection.

Oil-based substances and hydrocarbon solvents weaken latex very quickly. This damage cannot be seen, and so unsuitable gloves will give a false sense of security. Many chemicals can actually work their way through a glove by permeation.

Lined gloves may seem safer, but these are usually made by dipping a cotton glove in rubber or PVC. This means the coating is uneven and, on occasion, the fibres may show up on the surface of the glove making it useless as a barrier to chemicals.

Separate cotton linings worn underneath the glove are a much better idea, so long as they are changed regularly.



This information sheet covers potential hazards from photocopiers, laser printers and other elctronic duplicating devices and what the law says about it.  Photocopiers, laser printers, and other electronic duplicating devices are a regular feature of the modern office environment.

Modern dry toners are rarely a skin or eye hazard. The main ingredient, carbon black is mildly toxic, but modern machines with replaceable toner cartridges minimise exposure. Inhaled toner may cause respiratory irritation, but current thinking is that it is not carcinogenic (cancer causing) at exposure levels normally experienced in the office use of photocopiers. Impurities in some toners may however, be carcinogenic.

Older machines pose a greater exposure risk, because adding toner may involve transferring loose toner rather than replacing a cartridge.

Modern liquid toners also rarely irritate the skin, but exposure to solvents within them can dry and crack the skin, and mildly irritate the eyes. The same hazards apply to the various solvents used for cleaning duplicating machines. They also pose a fire risk if not stored adequately. Frequent contact with toner or other solvents may cause dermatitis or asthma.

Most modern equipment does not present a bright light hazard beyond short-term discomfort to the eyes, but it is prudent to keep the photocopier lid down. Some have interlocking devices, which prevent photocopying taking place unless the lid is down. Ultra-violet radiation may also be released through the glass plate, but at very low levels.

Electro-magnetic fields (EMF’s) are produced by electronic equipment. Research into EMF’s is not conclusive either way, but standing back at least 1 metre from the photocopier when doing long runs (e.g. 15 minutes) is an easy precaution to adopt.

All laser printers are classified as class 1 laser products meaning that under normal conditions the laser radiation (beam) is inaccessible and therefore not a hazard unless the shielding or enclosure around the laser is tampered with, or removed. Only properly trained technicians following the manufacturers safe working procedures should carry out maintenance.

Older or poorly maintained machines in poorly ventilated areas may emit detectable levels of various gases including ozone. Ozone has a pleasant clove-like odour. At harmful concentrations that might produce eye and respiratory tract irritation, its odour becomes strong and poignant. Severe exposure can result in lung damage. Office environments do not generally produce significant exposure levels although the occupational exposure limit can be breached if ventilation is inadequate. Odour problems with modern copiers and fax machines usually indicate inadequate ventilation.

Excessive dry heat can build up if too many machines are placed in a small area, or where their use is frequent and ventilation insufficient. This can cause discomfort to the eyes, and the workplace can become too dry and hot.

Excessive noise may also be experienced in such circumstances, or where the machines are old or poorly maintained. Printers in frequent use and close to a workstation can impair concentration.

Clearing paper jams in printers and other duplicating machinery will expose users to hot or moving parts, sharp edges, pinch points, or exposed electrical parts. Modern machines should have such risks designed out and should turn off automatically upon opening of the machine. However, a machine must always be disconnected from the power supply before opening.

The greatest risk from paper is in its manual handling.

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health
Employers need to carry out assessments under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) on all chemicals used in the workplace. If a hazard is identified, the process must be avoided, where this not reasonably practical a less hazardous substance must be used. If this is not reasonably practicable, control methods such as local exhaust ventilation, and as a last resort personal protective equipment must be used. Employers must meet the exposure limits set for any substance used in the workplace.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations
Employers must assess all potential risks to employees and take steps to avoid them. Where avoidance is not reasonably practical, they must reduce and control them as far as possible. Employees must be provided with information on the risks identified, and on the measures taken, or to be taken to avoid these.

The Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations
These regulations require employers to ensure that the equipment workers use at work is suitable for the purpose for which it is used or provided, and thereby does not cause a risk to health and safety. Equipment must be maintained in an efficient and good working order. All who use or supervise it must have adequate information and training on the equipment and on health and safety. For example in clearing jams. Specific risks must be eliminated where possible and controlled where not.

The Display Screen Equipment Regulations
Employers must make an assessment of the risks to health from workstations so those risks can be reduced to the lowest level reasonably practical. This would include ensuring that the noise and heat emitted by equipment such as desk top printers are taken into account when planning the workstation, and that they are not at levels which would cause discomfort or distract the user.

The Manual Handling Operations Regulations
Employers must ensure that employees avoid hazardous manual handling operations so far as possible. For example, by providing stable trollies for delivering paper in bulk, ensuring that it is stored near to the machines, and training employees on how to lift correctly.

The Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations
Employees must provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to employees as the last resort, whenever health and safety risks cannot be adequately protected by other means. For example, providing appropriate gloves for changing toner.

Employers must identify and assess any risks, and then take steps to avoid them wherever possible, and reduce them so far as possible where not.

Employers must obtain the material safety data sheets (MSDS’s) for any chemical used by a photocopier or other piece of machinery, including toner and glass cleaners and take all recommended precautions. MSDSs’ must be made available to safety reps.

When replacing toners or using solvents, users should wear rubber or vinyl coated protective gloves and if a liquid toner is used, safety goggles or a face shield. After adding toner, hands and face should be washed immediately.

The manufacturer’s recommendations for siting, ventilation, cleaning, servicing, maintenance, and frequency of filter changes must be obtained and followed. Filters that are in working order catch paper dust and destroy ozone.

There must be a clear system outling what cleaning and repairs employees are expected to carry out, such as clearing a minor paper jam, and those for which a specialist technician should be contacted. Staff who carry out minor cleaning and repairs must be given full training and information on technical issues and on health and safety.

Noise problems can be avoided by placing equipment in a separate room from workers. Where this is not possible, acoustic hoods can be placed over noisy printers, which can also be placed on absorbent surfaces to help reduce noise and vibration. However, beware of false claims made for numerous other devices and gadgets that supposedly reduce or prevent a whole range of hazards, real or otherwise, such as the £70 metal attachment that works to restore the bodies natural alpha rhythms. At best they will do no real harm apart from encourage complacency, but it may make the problem worse by preventing proper action being taken.

As a general rule, the more frequently a copier is used or the more duplicating machinery there are, the more important is a separate room with local (separate) mechanical exhaust ventilation. Properly maintained modern machines placed in well ventilated areas, and with the appropriate but simple precautions taken, are rarely a hazard.


Repetitive Strain Injury

RSI covers a wide range of injuries to muscles, tendons and nerves.

RSI covers a wide range of injuries to muscles, tendons and nerves. Usually hands, wrists, elbows or shoulders are affected. Knees and feet can also suffer, especially if a job involves a lot of kneeling or operating foot pedals on equipment.

RSI is the more commonly known term for a set of disorders called Work Related Upper Limb Disorders or WRULDS. It is a serious disease that must be stopped at an early stage or permanent disability could be caused.

There are many different names for these injuries, including:
Carpel tunnel syndrome
Dupuytren’s contracture
Epicondylitis or ‘tennis elbow’
‘Housemaid’s knee’ or ‘beat conditions’
Overuse injury

RSI is caused, or made worse, by work demanding awkward or repeated movements, especially if you need to apply pressure as well. For example, wringing out clothes means twisting your wrists and arms while gripping the cloth tightly. If these movements are repeated frequently, your hands and wrists will be strained and start to feel painful or numb.

Anyone whose work involves some of the following risk factors:
awkward posture,
awkward grip,
badly designed equipment, tools or workstations,
repeated movements,
applying physical force,
fast-pace work,
inadequate rest breaks,
lack of training, and/or
no variety of tasks.

All these factors are worse in the cold or in stressful working conditions.

Although most cases UNISON deals with involve keyboard workers like typists and computer operators, nearly all work carries some risk. It has been linked to manual work, including the use of vibrating equipment.

UNISON members at risk include:
typists, clerical, and data processing workers,
carpenters, and
machine operators.

But many other jobs can cause RSI unless measures are taken to avoid it.

The job should fit the worker, not the other way round. he first step is to look at the way jobs are carried out. Does the work include any of the risk factors listed? Use the checklist to find out what improvements are needed. If the answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’, there is a risk of repetitive strain injury.

RSI checklist
1. Does the work involve:
awkward movements of hand, wrist, arm or shoulders?
rapidly repeated movements?
prolonged physical pressure, such as gripping or squeezing?
holding an uncomfortable position for a long time?
too few breaks to allow muscles to recover?
lack of variety of physical tasks?
long hours or fast-paced work?

2. Are tools and equipment:
too heavy?
the wrong shape to be used comfortably?
causing problems of vibration or noise?
designed for men but used by women?

3. Are workstations and work areas:
too high or too low?
not adjustable for individual users?
noisy or poorly lit?

4. Is training:
not provided for all employees, especially those who are new to the work?
not provided when there is a change in equipment or methods of working?
provided but not include risks and ways of avoiding RSI?

5. Are problems:
not reported to management?
not reported in writing (preferably in the accident book)?

Depending on the problem areas you have identified, the following measures will help to prevent RSI:
redesign equipment and/or tools,
change the way the work is done,
redesign work area or work station,
reduce the pace of work,
introduce rest breaks and more variety of tasks, and/or
training to include risks and safer methods of work.

All employers have legal duties to ensure their employees’ health and safety at work, provide safe work methods, workplaces and equipment, and give employees health and safety information and training.

Health and safety laws mean that management have a duty to conduct ‘risk assessments’. This means that your employer has to work out the risk factors associated with each job and then minimise those risks. It is vital that union safety reps are involved, to make sure:
that risk assessments have been done for all jobs (especially where workers are complaining of RSI symptoms),
that all the RSI risk factors have been examined,
that management have consulted the workers concerned,
that experienced people have carried out the assessments (they don’t need to be experts, but they do need experience and knowledge), and
that an action plan has been developed to make sure that risks are reduced and monitored (they should be reassessed if the job or work changes ).

The legal basis for all this is in the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. More information is given in UNISON’s guide to these regulations. In the case of keyboard work the Display Screen Equipment Regulations are particularly relevant.

People are different and different people will develop WRULDS for different reasons at different times. Symptoms of RSI vary from sufferer to sufferer. Symptoms include:
numbness or tingling in the arm or hand,
aches and pains in the muscles or joints,
loss of strength and grip in the hand,
loss of sensation and even whiteness in the fingers, and
cracking in the joints or muscles.

These Symptoms are very similar to aches and pains of everday life - especially after physical effort. But those aches and pains die away after a day or so. The signs to watch for are the pains that come even when you have not exercised.

There are commonly three stages of injury:
Stage 1: Mild
Pain, aching and tiredness of the wrists, arms, shoulders or neck during work, which improves overnight. This stage may last weeks or months, but is reversible (threatened over-use injury).

Stage 2: Moderate
Recurrent pain, aching and tiredness occur earlier in the working day, persist at night and may disturb sleep. Physical signs may be visible such as a cyst-like swelling near a joint or a tender swelling in the affected area. This stage may last several months.

Stage 3: Severe
Pain, aching, weakness, and fatigue are experienced even when the person is resting completely. Sleep is often disturbed, and the sufferer may be unable to carry out even light tasks at home or work. This stage may last for months or years. Sometimes it is irreversible and the person never gets back use of the affected part of their body (established over-use injury).

The first thing a member should do is let their employer know about the symptoms, especially if they think they have been caused or made worse by work. If RSI is recognised in the early stages, it can be treated by resting the painful arm or hand, etc.

Other measures, such as painkillers, arm-splints, physiotherapy, ultrasound or surgery will not cure the condition if the sufferer is forced to continue the work that caused the problem in the first place. If you have a member you think may be suffering from RSI due to work:

Get them to tell their GP about the work they do, their symptoms and why they think they could have RSI. They should not delay in getting treatment, including sick leave. They should follow their doctor’s advice and try to stop doing anything they think may be causing their symptoms.
Make sure the member reports it to their manager and to the occupational doctor or nurse, if there is one. They should make it clear that they believe it is work related RSI and keep a copy. Make sure the symptoms are written in the accident book.

Get advice from the Employment Medical Advisory Service if necessary.

Ensure that management do a full assessment of the member’s workplace and take any necessary action to remove any possible causes of RSI.

Prevention is obviously best, but if RSI is confirmed, you may want to see if the member can claim benefits and compensation for injury (see below). Do this as soon as possible.

You may want to suggest the member contact the RSI Association for details of their nearest self-help group (see last page).

Some types of RSI are prescribed industrial diseases. This means that sufferers may be entitled to injury and disability benefit from the DSS. To claim this benefit, the member must ask for form B1 100B at their nearest social security office.

The types of RSI that are prescribed industrial diseases are:
writer’s cramp, and
beat hand, elbow or knee.

Carpel tunnel syndrome - a common type of RSI - is only prescribed if the member got it from using vibrating equipment. They may also be entitled to claim benefit for it if they suffer from tenosynovitis as well. At present, only sufferers assessed as at least 14% disabled will be paid DSS disability benefit.

The member may also be able to claim compensation for their injuries from the employer. They will need to prove that RSI was caused by work and that their employer should have prevented it

UNISON can help members if they want to claim compensation. Ask your branch secretary for a UNISON Legal Services Form P1 to apply for legal assistance for work-related cases of injury, illness, or disease. It is not always easy to take compensation cases but, once the member has completed the form, UNISON’s Legal Services will be able to advise them about whether to go ahead.

UNISON has at least two tasks to do:
get employers to prevent risks, and
support members with WRULDS/RSI.

Workers should be encouraged to report their symptoms - and management must be made to deal with the cause of the problem, and not take it out on sufferers.

The law requires employers to investigate reported health and safety problems and take steps to prevent them. If they just sack employees without any attempt to rectify the problem or rehabilitate the employee, this is grounds for unfair dismissal. As a workplace safety rep, you have legal rights to:
be consulted in good time over any change to working practices or equipment that might affect safety,
be consulted about risk assessments,
be consulted about health and safety information and training for employees,
be consulted about any experts or competent persons appointed to assess WRULDS/RSI problems,
set up a safety committee (make sure any WRULDS/RSI problems are discussed at it),
time off to represent your work colleagues’ safety interests and carry out workplace inspections for WRULDS/RSI, and
time off to attend TUC and UNISON health and safety courses.


The RSI Association provides help and advice for sufferers. Contact them for details of the nearest self-help group.


Sick Building Syndrome

Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) is a growing concern for many UNISON branches. It is estimated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) that 30% - 50% of new or recently refurbished buildings cause some form of SBS, and that, in the worst cases, up to 85% of the occupants are suffering symptoms.

This information sheet tells you what SBS is, what the likely causes are, and what can be done to resolve the problems caused by SBS.

SBS has been recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) since 1982. It is characterised by a significant proportion of those working in a particular building complaining of a range of cold or flu type symptoms and tends to affect office buildings more that other types of workplace.

With SBS the symptoms are much more common among the occupants of the particular building than in the general population and are suffered less or disappear when people are away from the building over a weekend or holiday.

Unfortunately the term SBS is often used for other, more specific, problems; in particular simple comfort problems caused by lack of heating, or poor air conditioning, or low humidity. In addition, SBS is not a single-related illness where there is a specific cause such as stress (where often the symptoms are very similar), a bacterial infection such as legionnaires disease, or where the office has been built on contaminated land.

These are all specific health problems, which should be dealt with separately through a risk assessment.

With SBS, there are a wide range of different symptoms, but because different people react differently they are often not identified as SBS. Some people will feel no ill effects while others, working in exactly the same conditions, will get quite serious illnesses.

Usually there are four types of symptoms associated with SBS. These are: skin problems, breathing problems (including sore throats, persistent coughs, blocked noses, and sinusitis), muscular and joint problems (especially stiff shoulders and back ache), and what are usually called neurological problems (such as tiredness, head aches, and digestion disorders).

However, most of these symptoms could result from any one of a number of causes including stress or flu. This makes the role of the UNISON branch more crucial in getting evidence of both the cause and the extent of the problem.

Extensive Health & Safety resource

Our national website has a comprehensive section on health & Safety issues. Click here for more information