A Comprehensive Guide to Office Safety and Health

Learn about what comprises office safety and health, why it is important, and how you should go about creating a sustainable office safety culture.

Are offices really safe?

Compared to a construction site, a manufacturing plant, or a chemical lab, most offices are considered safe environments. However, offices still have their fair share of workplace incidents and accidents due to a lack of a strong office safety culture. A closer look at office environments can reveal underlying hazards and risks that jeopardize the health and safety of workers. It is for this reason that office workers should know the basics of office safety and health and understand its importance. If you are a worker looking for definitive information on office safety and health or an office leader searching for ideas on how to implement it, you’re in the right place. This is your comprehensive guide to office safety and health.

“Around 76,000 workers nationwide receive disabling injuries every year“- US Bureau of Labor Statistics

In a perfect world, every office worker should come back home in good health. Oftentimes, employees disregard poor physical conditions in the office that expose them to increased risk of long-term injuries and diseases—factors that can not only threaten their livelihood, but also how they live for the years to come. This is the main reason why employers should commit to sustaining proper office safety and health protocols to ensure the long-term wellness of their employees and the company.

As a legal duty and moral responsibility of every company, management should ensure that employees are educated about the many office hazards which many workers may not be aware of, such as noise, poor ergonomics, damaged electrical wires, inoperative fire extinguishers, and lack of emergency plans. Tens of thousands of office workers already suffer injuries or work-related health problems, which could have easily been prevented had they undergone proper training and education.

A safe and healthy office benefits both the company and the worker as it helps ensure the following:

  1. Improves productivity and product/service quality
  2. Companies who devote resources to their employees’ safety and health can help reduce absenteeism and employee turnover, which can have a serious impact on productivity and profits. On the other hand, product and service quality is also improved when employees are in good health because they are motivated to do better at their jobs.

  3. Protects company reputation
  4. In this day and age, anyone can simply publish a company review on Glassdoor or Indeed. Regardless of whether this review is based on facts or just a false claim, it can instantly destroy a company’s reputation and turn away quality candidates.

    To avoid this, companies should genuinely invest in the health and safety of their employees. In the long run, this will help employees develop a positive outlook on the company and its initiatives. This positive word-of-mouth will not only attract qualified applicants but also improve employee retention as they know their company is a good place to work in.

  5. Saves money for both employee and employer
  6. An injured worker can easily mean hundreds of lost man hours and and quickly adds up to billions in company expenses and insurance costs. More importantly, a critical part of that injured worker’s life is lost as he is forced to adopt a new lifestyle.

    With a well implemented office safety and health policy, companies can help prevent employee injuries and fatal accidents that cause huge financial impact not only to the company, but also the involved employees and their families.

  7. Promotes a culture of improvement
  8. Office safety and health is not all about safety incidents and their related costs; a safety-conscious working environment is also an avenue for promoting a culture of improvement. Similar to an office that practices Kaizen principles, those with a healthy workplace safety culture have employees actively looking for opportunities to make their office safer each day, which can notably improve their sense of well-being as part of the company.

    Now that you know the benefits of implementing office safety and health initiatives, it is also important for managers to understand its legal basis and be familiar with the governing bodies and regulations that ensure the implementation of health and safety policies in the workplace.

    “Employers have the responsibility to provide a safe and healthful workplace that is free from serious recognized hazards.” – OSHA 1970

    International and national regulatory bodies were institutionalized to ensure that policies and legislation on office safety and health are developed and properly implemented. Together, these regulatory bodies help oversee organizations and how they respect legal labor requirements in practice and principle.

     

    International Labor Organization (ILO)

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    For oversight of international labor standards, it is the International Labour Organization (ILO) that is responsible for bringing together governments, employers, and workers of its 187 Member Statesto set labour standards, develop policies and devise programmes promoting decent work for all women and men.” As a specialized agency of the United Nations, its mission is to promote social justice and internationally recognized human and labor rights.

     

    While there are internationally recognized office safety and health practices, legislation and regulations can still vary on a national level as each country has its own approach towards enforcement.

     

    Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) | USA

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    When President Richard Nixon enacted the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHAct) of 1970, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was formed as the agency authorized to enforce protective workplace safety and health standards and regulate private employers in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and other territories.

     

    Health and Safety Executive (HSE) | UK

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    In the United Kingdom, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) serves as the national regulator for workplace safety and health. They enforce local health and safety legislations, such as the Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA) 1974 and The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases, and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR) 1995.

     

    The Commonwealth, States & Territories | Australia

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    Safe Work Australia, a statutory agency established in 2009, heads the development of national policies on health, safety, and compensation across Australia. Compared to the US and UK, however, the enforcement of policies is not the responsibility of Safe Work Australia but is administered by the Commonwealth, states, and territories. The specific workplace health and safety (WHS) acts, regulations, and codes of practice per Australian state and territory can be found here.

    Office risk assessments are an effective way to manage safety and health risks within an office environment. This process begins with hazard identification—identifying objects, situations, or activities that can potentially cause harm to employees.

    To identify hazards, workers can employ several methods, such as comprehensive safety walkarounds, inspection of historical data, and job safety analysis, but in order to identify them properly, it’s important to know the types of hazards that can be found in the workplace.

    In this test, try to examine the office setting and spot the ten hazards that can put a worker’s safety and health at risk.

    After the test, you will realize that, while there are obvious hazards, there are some that you may not have immediately noticed or may be completely unaware of; these include the way a worker sits on a chair, disorganized electrical cords, or boxes blocking the fire exit.

    “What the eye doesn’t see and the mind doesn’t know, doesn’t exist.” – D.H. Lawrence

    In safety, “what the eye doesn’t see and the mind doesn’t know, doesn’t exist.” To properly perform risk assessment in the office, It is important for employees to understand the fundamentals of workplace hazard identification. Lack of training in proper workplace hazard identification can mean the difference between a safe and healthy employee and an injured one.
    With that, let’s take a deeper look into the major types of office safety and health hazards and learn how to control them.

    Physical Hazards in the Office

    Physical hazards are factors that need not to be touched which can threaten the safety and health of an office worker. The most common physical hazards in the office are temperature; air quality; ventilation; noise; and slips, trips, and falls. Here are the risks associated with each physical hazard and ways on how to manage them:

    1. Temperature
    2. Temperatures that make employees feel uncomfortable can result in low productivity and morale. In fact, a 2018 poll in the UK showed that 26.1% of surveyed workers said they “pulled a sickie” because their office felt too cold. Employers and managers carry the responsibility to manage this office health hazard and ensure that employees work as comfortably as possible.

      How To Manage Risk:

      • Consult employees on what they feel is the right temperature for their working areas
      • Remind employees to wear appropriate clothing to the office, especially during summer and winter season.
      • Always check whether the air-conditioning system is working properly and regulate accordingly.
      • Control direct sunlight with blinds and louvers.
      • Refer to guidelines on workplace temperature control in your country. See sample regulations for the UK, Australia, and the US.
      • Optimize thermal gradient according to the office layout.
    3. Indoor air quality and ventilation
    4. In the US, 90% of people spend most of their time indoors with many of them spending time in an office environment. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also reported that indoor environments, such as an office, sometimes have higher levels of pollutants than the outside. This makes it more important for employers to give indoor air quality and ventilation higher importance as poor conditions can lead to fatigue, occupational asthma, allergies, and other respiratory disorders. Some conditions that may lead to deterioration of air quality include office overcrowding, restricted air flows, poor housekeeping, and inadequate ventilation.

      How To Manage Risk:

      • Indoor air quality audits to evaluate adherence to accepted air pollution thresholds.
      • Ensure proper maintenance, cleaning, and filtration of the ventilation, heating, and air-conditioning system. 
      • Schedule office housekeeping regularly. 
      • Comply with office and building smoking policies.
      • If there is an office kitchen, remind employees to store food properly and throw out food before they spoil.
    5. Noise
    6. The US Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that over 20 million workers are exposed to potentially damaging noise at work each year. Noise, at high or low levels, can affect office safety and health by increasing stress levels, interfering with concentration, and causing hearing loss.

      How to Manage Risk:

      • If possible, apply engineering controls while at the design stage and try to choose features that will reduce noise to the minimum acceptable level. 
      • Adhere to the acceptable sound level limits stated in your country’s respective occupational health and safety laws (see laws for UK, Australia, and the US).
      • Identify the sources, paths, and levels of sound. Once identified, prioritize the control of sound levels that are most excessive.
      • Place a barrier between the noise source and employee (e.g., sound walls or curtains).
      • Perform regular maintenance on machines and equipment. Consider adding noise mufflers, vibration isolators, or duct silencers.
    7. Slips, trips, and falls
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      Before moving further, it is important to differentiate between these three somewhat similar hazards. Slips occur when a person’s foot loses traction with the ground surface; trips occur when a person unexpectedly catches their foot on an object or surface; and falls may result from a slip or trip but many occur during falls from low heights or into a hole, ditch, or body of water.

      In Australia, slips, trips, and falls accounted for 386 deaths in Australian workplaces from 2003-2015 SafeWork Australia. In the US, on the other hand, 798 workers died due to falls in 2014 alone National Safety Council

      How to Manage Risks: 

      • Remove hazards at the design stage, such as eliminating uneven flooring and installing additional power outlets to avoid cord trails.
      • Keep walkways and hallways free of debris, clutter, and obstacles.
      • Consider installing slip-resistant mats or replacing worn flooring panels.
      • Implement good housekeeping practices, such as cleaning up spills immediately.
      • Provide warning signages in case of spills to avoid any incident.
      • Immediately fix leaks from equipment or pipes.

    Click here to download customizable Office Safety Checklists

    Biological Hazards in the Office

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    Biological hazards, or biohazards, are organic substances that can pose a threat to an employee’s health. Biological hazards can include exposure to:

    • mold/fungi
    • spores
    • pathogenic micro-organisms
    • human waste
    • blood or other bodily fluids/tissue
    • drugs/cytotoxic substances

    “It is estimated that around 320,000 workers die each year from communicable diseases caused by work-related exposures to biological hazards” – Driscoll et al 2005; OSHA 2007

    Some people may think that biohazards are limited to workplaces such as laboratories or factories, but they can also be found in seemingly comfortable offices.Managing such hazards in an office setting is critical as they can quickly get out of hand, which could lead to problems with local health and business regulation agencies.

    How to Manage Risk of Biological Hazards:

    • Implement proper disposal of items that have biological risk.
    • Schedule regular pest control services.
    • Regularly check ventilation in the office.
    • Provide appropriate respiratory protective equipment especially when there is a known outbreak.
    • Create awareness campaigns about the different types of biological hazards in the workplace.

     

    Office Ergonomics 

    “Ergonomic injuries account for over 30% of days-away-from-work cases. These injuries also require more time off the job (median of 11 days vs. 8 days) than those with other types of workplace injuries/illnesses.”- US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 2013

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    Office workers spend many hours a day seated at a desk, often resulting in strains and other injuries due to unidentified ergonomic hazards.Ergonomic hazards are usually the most difficult to spot as workers won’t always immediately feel the effects of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). Unfortunately, MSDs account for more than $15 billion in workplace compensation costs. The most common MSDs are muscle strain, rotator cuff injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), and tendonitis. Long-term exposure to ergonomic hazards can result in the employee suffering from serious long-term MSDs, and the employer losing man hours and millions in insurance costs.

    Some ergonomic hazards that can be seen in the office are:

    • Poor posture
    • Frequent lifting of boxes and files and improper lifting procedures
    • Improperly adjusted workstation and chairs
    • Excessive or prolonged exposure to vibration

    How to Address Office Ergonomic Hazards

    • Conduct ergonomic assessments to identify risk of injuries and ensure that environments are maximized for comfort and productivity.
    • While at the design stage, carefully choose interior materials, lighting, and layout. Ensure that workspaces are designed to support neutral ergonomic positions.
    • Follow the 10 ergonomic principles.
    • Ensure that workers have the right equipment and tools to perform their job comfortably.
    • Encourage early reporting of MSD symptoms.
    • Evaluate progress of established corrective action procedures on ergonomic processes to ensure long-term success.
    • Develop office fitness programs that help educate employees about the importance of doing exercises or stretches to prevent MSDs.

    Click here to download customizable Ergonomics Assessment Checklists

    Fire safety is of utmost importance in any office. An office fire incident can be devastating not only for the workers, but the public as well. It can lead to injuries and even fatalities—not to mention costly property damage. In 2017, the US National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) reported that around 18,000 structure fires came from stores and offices, resulting to an estimated $763,000 in property loss.

    What are the Common Fire Hazards in the Office?

    It’s easy to forget the risk of fire when in the office, but it must be stressed that there are commonly missed fire hazards that can put everyone in the office in grave danger. Here are the top 5 common fire hazards that employees should watch out for:

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    1. Smoking

      Discarded cigarette butts that have not been put out completely or have been discarded near flammable materials can cause a fire, especially in the right conditions (dry weather and some wind).

    2. Overheated computer equipment and kitchen appliances

      Many offices have cooking facilities nowadays, whether it be an oven, stove, or microwave. Leaving it on, unattended, and/or using it unsafely can lead to a fire.

    3. Overloading electrical sockets

      Plugging too many appliances or equipment in one power socket and improper use of extension cords can cause sockets to overheat and burst into flames. Attention should be paid to ensure that power is evenly distributed and that not too many appliances are plugged in and in use at once.

    4. Blocked walkways and fire escapes

      It’s essential that all office corridors and walkways are kept clear and access to fire escapes is not restricted because blockages could delay the evacuation of a building. Furniture and other objects must not be placed close to or in front of fire doors, as these must be accessible at all times.

    5. Lack of an emergency action plan

      Fire emergency action plans specify how to safely evacuate in an emergency, where to gather after evacuation, and who should perform certain critical functions. In case of an emergency in the office building, a clear emergency action plan is vital to avoid causing panic that can lead to fatal consequences.

    How to Ensure Fire Safety In the Office

    • Conduct comprehensive fire risk assessments to have an overview of the current level of fire safety in the office.
    • Educate employees on emergency procedures, exit locations, escape routes, fire alarms and drills, and use of fire extinguishers.
    • Conduct regular fire drills.
    • Remind employees to immediately report damaged electrical cords, cables, outlets, and conduits.
    • Keep fire exits unobstructed.
    • Ensure that smoke alarms and proper sprinkler systems are installed and working properly.
    • Ensure that fire extinguishers are regularly and properly inspected.
    • Use a checklist to ensure all critical fire extinguisher inspection items are covered.
    • Provide for disabled employees to ensure that they get the necessary help in case of a fire emergency.

    Click here to download Fire Risk Assessment Checklists

    Almost all office work today involves the use of equipment that run on electricity. Equipment, such as photocopiers, laptops, kettle leads, and power switches, can get wet or become faulty, which can cause burns and electric shocks. Office workers who are not adequately trained on electrical safety are exposed to higher risk of such injuries, or worse, death.

    What are the common electrical hazards in the office?

    Have a look at some common electrical hazards in the office and how to be safe around them.

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    • Faulty wiring and damaged equipment
    • Exposure to defective electrical tools (e.g., those with wrong sizes and inadequate insulation) can be dangerous to office workers because it can cause fire incidents and electric shock

    • Overloaded outlets
    • As mentioned earlier, having too many devices plugged into an outlet can lead to overheating and power shortage. Overloading power outlets exposes wires to extreme temperatures which can cause it to melt and trigger a fire in the area.

    • Improper grounding
    • Ungrounded power outlets can be easily differentiated from grounded ones; the former features a two-prong socket while the latter features a three-prong one, with a third “hole” (the round hole) where the ground plug goes. Electrical equipment should be earthed (an “earth” or wire should be put between a piece of electrical equipment and the ground) to achieve a low-resistance path for dissipation of current into the ground. Ungrounded installations can be hazardous to the office and its inhabitants as they can cause electric shock to employees and short out computers and other appliances.

    • Wet conditions
    • Oftentimes, employees get electrocuted when they touch electrical outlets or plug-in electric appliances with wet hands. The thing is, water itself is not a conductor of electricity, but when it contains minerals (metallic solids) or when it gets in contact with the body (which can most likely contain salt), that is when water becomes a significant conductor of electricity.

    • Inadequate training
    • Insufficient training on electrical safety is one of the main reasons why the above-mentioned electrical hazards remain prevalent in the office. It is essential that well planned safety seminars and supplementary information are given to ensure the risk of electrical hazards are mitigated.

Electrical Safety Tips in the Office

  • Ensure all electrical equipment is certified by a nationally recognized laboratory and read all manufacturers’ instructions carefully.
  • Encourage the use of electrical inspection checklists and include all the necessary items for an effective electrical safety walkthrough.
  • At least once a month, thoroughly check for cracks, cuts, or abrasions on cables, wires, and cords
  • Perform regular fire risk assessments to identify areas at risk of of bad wiring and faulty circuits.
  • Unplug appliances when not in use to save energy and minimize the risk of shock and fire.
  • Avoid overloading outlets with too many appliances. Never plug more than one high-wattage appliance in a single power outlet at a time.
  • Place power strips where there is good of air circulation to disperse heat
  • Do not bind, kink, or knot electrical cords.
  • Never run electrical cords through high-traffic areas, under rugs, or across doorways.
  • If your computer screen flickers or fades, or you detect a burning smell, power down and immediately contact the building engineer.
  • Consider having a licensed electrician install additional outlets where needed, rather than relying on extension cords and power strips.

Click here to download Electrical Inspection Checklists

officesafetyandhealth_housekeeping

Office housekeeping is a systematic process of making an office environment clean and orderly. An effective office housekeeping program is an important element in office safety and health management as it fosters a cleaner and organized workplace, which in turn helps the company gain the following benefits.

  • Helps employees find things easier;
  • Notice items that are no longer useful and dispose them faster;
  • Lower risk for fire due to less clutter;
  • Less property damage;
  • Improved utilization of space;
  • Cleaner atmosphere; and
  • improved morale.

What are OSHA’s minimum office housekeeping requirements?

  • Establish and maintain good housekeeping practices.
  • Eliminate slippery conditions, such as snow, ice, and grease, from walkways and working surfaces as necessary. Where removal is not possible, access to such areas must be restricted and an alternate route established, or slip-resistant footwear provided.
  • Ensure easy and open access to all exits (including ladders, staircases, scaffolds, and gangways), fire-alarm boxes, fire extinguishing equipment and fire call stations.
  • Maintain walkways so that they provide adequate passage and are a) free from debris; b) clear of tools, materials, equipment, and other objects; and c)free from trip hazards as a result of the improper storage or placement of hoses and electrical service cords.
  • Cordon off any portion of a walkway that is being used as a working surface.
  • Make sure working surfaces are free from all tools, materials, and equipment not necessary to perform the job in progress. All debris, including liquid and solid waste, must be cleared at the end of the job or workshift, whichever occurs first.
  • Keep working surfaces dry, when possible. If a wet process is used, drainage must be maintained and dry standing places made available, or workers provided with protective footgear when such means are not practicable.

Click here to download Workplace Housekeeping Checklists

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The actions taken in the initial minutes of an emergency are critical. A prompt warning to employees to evacuate, seek shelter, or initiate lockdown can save lives. A call for help to public emergency services that provides full and accurate information will help the dispatcher send the right responders and equipment. This is why an employee trained to administer first aid or perform CPR can be life-saving. Action by employees with knowledge of building and process systems can also help control a leak and minimize damage to the facility, the environment, and the people within it.

Things to Remember During an Office Emergency

In case of emergencies, an employer must ensure:
provision of and access to first aid equipment and facilities; and
that an adequate number of workers (or other persons) have been trained to administer first aid.

First aid requirements may vary from one workplace to the next depending on:
the nature of the work
the types of hazards present
the size, location, number, and composition of people at the workplace

Every office should also have these emergency phone numbers handy:
Fire and rescue
Doctor and ambulance
Poisons Information Centre (13 11 26).

Your office emergency action plan must also provide:
Emergency procedures, which include:
Proper evacuation procedures
Notifying emergency service organizations at the earliest opportunity
Emergency medical treatment and assistance
Effective communication with the person coordinating the emergency response
Testing of the emergency procedures, including the frequency of testing
Information, training, and instruction to relevant workers in relation to implementing the emergency procedures

It is also vital that all workers be familiar with emergency procedures and information for the workplace, such as:
Who to report to in case of an emergency
Emergency telephone numbers
Evacuation procedures and the designated rendezvous points
the type of fire extinguisher to use for different fires

building a sustainable safety culture

While injuries in the office may not be as serious as those that occur in manufacturing plants or construction sites, they are still as impactful to both the employee and employer. However, office management should realize that office safety and health is not all about enforcing policies, but rather, it is about building an effective and sustainable office safety culture. Below are 7 ways you can ensure that you develop an office safety culture that’s sustainable in the long run.

  1. Develop a strategy that is culture-driven rather than policy-driven.
  2. Office workplaces that truly want to solve the root cause of unsafe conditions should realize that, more than the “do’s and don’ts” and safety signages, it is the culture they build that will help improve office safety in general. Leaders must develop a strategy that helps employees understand the true value of office safety and health in their lives and motivate them to go beyond compliance.

    When people in the office look for and report hazards, give peers feedback on safe and at-risk behavior, volunteer for safety committees, and make suggestions for improvement, these are signs of an effective culture-driven strategy.

  3. Identify (or create) office safety champions.
  4. Safety champions in the workplace are the heart and soul of a strong office safety culture. They are passionate employees who are willing to take initiatives and lead their teammates by example.

    Identifying or developing champions can help management teams spread knowledge and enthusiasm on the floor. Through them, other employees will be better engaged in office safety and health discussions as they have people that they can easily talk to and treat as role models.

  5. Utilize all media to communicate goals clearly. 
  6. Use every medium possible, including email blasts, meetings, and bulletin boards, to constantly communicate office safety and health goals. Top management must be visible and involved in communications (e.g., leading each communication with a safety message, comment, or statement addressed to the whole organization).

  7. Provide necessary training to every employee. 
  8. Trainings are effective avenues to educate employees on basic safety skills, such as proper hazard identification, risk assessment, and incident reporting. It is also a means for getting genuine insights from employees and using these to further improve the training approach.

  9. Use positive reinforcement to reward people. 
  10. Utilize positive reinforcement to encourage desired behaviors for office safety and health. Rewarding employees who exhibit know-how and show initiative will encourage repetition and become role models in the long run, encouraging others to do the same.

    Celebrate wins, small or big, based on data improvement and office safety audits; communicate results and recognize those responsible. This strategy ensures office incidents are reduced for the right reasons and further encourages employees to go beyond simply complying with rules.

  11. Encourage employees to always speak up. 
  12. Managers and supervisors should encourage employees to offer ideas, whether novel or traditional, for the improvement of office safety and health. Companies should not be complacent with decades-old policies that may not be as relevant today as they were before. If safety policies are ineffective, employees will simply work around them and inadvertently increase risk in the process.

  13. Ensure timely succession of safety champions. 
  14. The departure of experienced leaders and safety champions is inevitable. To manage this loss, it is important to plan succession carefully because this will help fill in the skills and knowledge gap between the experienced employees and the younger ones.

    Office leaders play a critical role in building the foundation for a sustainable office safety and health culture. Management should ensure that appropriate discussions about work are conducted regularly so that the culture evolves with useful insights from employees. With effort from the bottom up, offices can develop a health and safety culture that endures.

Creating a working environment with a good office safety culture is a responsibility that must be borne by both employers and employees. Management should ensure that they abide by occupational safety and health regulations and provide a safe working environment, while employees should cooperate with their leaders and always be on the lookout for office hazards. These efforts will help make your office a place where employees feel that their safety and health are a top priority.

Get in touch with the iAuditor Team to know more how you can modernize office safety and health in your workplace

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