Effective Date: July 1, 1997 (Issue No. 2)

Last Updated: December, 2014

A. Introduction

Traditionally an office environment is viewed as non-hazardous. However, injuries do occur in offices, some of them may cause significant sufferings and loss of work time.

Safety precautions set forth in this chapter should be observed in order to prevent injuries and health problems commonly associated with working in the office setting.


B. Responsibility

The overall responsibility for safety in the workplace rests with the Department Head with the cooperation and support of the Departmental Safety Officer, office manager, and supervisors. A safe working environment contributes positively to office morale and productivity.


C. Housekeeping

One of the most significant contributions to safety in the workplace is good housekeeping practices. Good housekeeping means careful planning and establishment of workplace layout, combined with continued vigilance, maintenance and cleanliness. On the other hand, poor housekeeping is the root cause of most accidents in the office, such as fire, slipping, tripping and falling, etc.

To avoid collisions, trips and slips, all internal thoroughfares and circulation routes should be clearly signed, outlined, free from obstructions, surface defects and litter. Proper attention should be given to the following:

  • Spills should be dealt with immediately. They should be cleaned up or cordoned off immediately.
  • Wet areas must be adequately cordoned off with warning signs posted, such as during floor cleaning or waxing operations. 
  • Damaged floor surfaces such as chipped concrete floors, warping tiles, or worn spots in the carpet, etc., should be reported to CMO immediately for repair. The damaged areas should be effectively cordoned off.
  • Aisles, walkways and stairs must be kept free from boxes, wastebaskets, chairs, and other obstacles that impede traffic.
  • Electric and telephone cables should not be trailed across aisles and walkways, and should be arranged so that they do not pose a tripping hazard.
  • Desks should be kept tidy. Drinks should be placed in spots where they cannot be knocked over easily. They should not be placed near computers and other electrical equipment. Materials should be stacked properly to prevent falling.


D. Fire Safety

Precautions set forth under Chapter 3 Section 1 and Chapter 6 of this manual should also be observed where applicable. The following are some of the specific fire safety precautions to be observed in the office:

  • Smoking is one of the major causes of fires in the office environment. At HKUST, smoking is prohibited in all building premises including student halls.
  • Flammable fluids may sometimes be used in the office. These must be properly stored in safety cans and approved safety cabinets as required according to the quantity being kept.
  • The use of electric space heaters in the office should be avoided. If used, they should be located at a safe distance from combustible materials.
  • To prevent over-heating, vents for heat generating office equipment such as computer monitors, copying machines, etc. must not be blocked.
  • Overloading of power sockets can lead to overheating and fire. The use of adaptors should be avoided to prevent overloading. If unavoidable, make sure that the adaptors and extension boards to be used must be up to the required safety standards.
  • All fire exits must be clearly marked with exit signs. Fire exit signs should be visible at any location in the office. All fire doors must be kept closed to prevent the spread of fire and smoke during a fire. However, these doors MUST NOT be locked when people are working in the area.
  • Floor plans showing fire escape routes and fire assembly points, together with the fire evacuation procedure should be posted at conspicuous locations in the office.
  • Hose reels, sprinkler heads and fire extinguishers (if installed) must not be blocked or obstructed. A minimum clearance of 450 mm should be maintained below sprinkler heads.


E. Use of Electrical Equipment and Machines

The misuse of electrical equipment can lead to a wide variety of potential hazards, including slips and trips over trailing cables, ill-placed floor sockets, and fans; cuts and lacerations by dangerous machine parts. In more serious cases, electric shocks and burns can also result from faulty installations and damaged electrical parts. The following precautions should be observed :

  • Do not tamper with electrical equipment and electrical installations. Contact CMO if such work is required. Damaged electrical cords and faulty electrical equipment must be reported promptly to CMO or the appropriate equipment suppliers for appropriate actions.
  • All electrical equipment should be maintained and repaired by qualified persons.
  • All electrical equipment should be of safe design and construction and operated in accordance with manufacturer’s instructions.
  • All electrical equipment must be properly connected to power sources by proper plugs and connections.
  • Power supply for electrical equipment via trailing cables or extension cords should be minimized as much as possible. Permanent wiring should be arranged by fixing additional power outlets near the equipment, or laying suitable conduits for equipment which are to be used for extended periods of time.
  • Except for equipment that must always be turned on, (e.g. fax machines, refrigerators, etc.), all other equipment should be switched off at night when nobody is working in the office.
  • Many office machines and equipment such as electric typewriters, shredding machines, stapling machines, letter opening machines, guillotines, etc., have moving parts which can be dangerous and result in serious injures to personnel. These machines and equipment must be equipped with proper safety devices and guards. Staff required to operate these machines should receive proper training.
  • Avoid wearing loose-fitting clothing, dangling bracelets, rings, ties or even long hair when you need to operate or work around power-driven office machines e.g. paper shredder.


F. Movement in the Office

Many accidents in the office occur simply when people are moving around. These are normally the result of an unsafe environment, unsafe personal factors, or both. The following are some recommended precautions :

  • Running in the office can cause a serious fall or collision. Walking is far safer as falls and collisions can be avoided more easily.
  • Reading while walking is very dangerous and should be avoided.
  • Handrails must be used when ascending and descending stairs. Never have both hands occupied for carrying things or in the pockets when using the stairs.
  • Never carry things in such a way that your vision is obscured.
  • Walk cautiously and slowly when approaching blind corners, especially when carrying objects.
  • Doors at common areas should be constructed with viewing panels so that any person on the other side of a door can be seen.
  • Transparent glass doors can be dangerous when people are unaware of their existence. They should be marked by some means so that they can be noticed.
  • Self-closing doors having too much spring tension can sometimes cause problems. This should be reported to CMO for appropriate adjustments.


G. Lifting and Carrying

Back injuries can be caused by improper lifting and carrying things in the office. There are simple lifting rules which can prevent injury and which are found in  Chapter 5, Section 3 of this manual on "Material Handling". Additional information can also be obtained from this online safety training module on "Back Care Basics"


H. Storage and Filing

This is a major activity in the office. The following precautions shall be observed :

  • Shelves must be securely fixed to prevent them from tipping over. When storing materials on shelves, heavier items should always be stored at lower levels.
  • When filling a filing cabinet for the first time, ensure that it is properly balanced. Do not fill from the top down.
  • All drawers of desks and cabinets must be closed as soon as things have been put in or taken out in order to prevent people from walking into them.
  • Only one drawer of a file cabinet should be pulled out at any one time to avoid the cabinet from tipping over. Most HKUST file cabinets are constructed so that it is not possible to open more than one drawer at a time.


I. Reaching for High Places

Proper ladders, or steps should be used for reaching high places. The use of chairs (especially swivel chairs on castors), boxes, drawers or other make-shift objects can result in serious falls and must be prohibited.


J. Cuts by Sharp Objects

Sharp objects such as pencils, ball point pens, letter openers, scissors, razor blades, etc. can cause serious injury. These items must be properly placed inside drawers. When they are put inside a pen holder, the sharp ends must not be allowed to point upwards. Pins should not be placed casually on the desk, but should be properly contained.


K. Burns and Scalds

This kind of injury can happen when handling hot drinks and hot food, especially in the pantry. The temperature of certain parts of some office equipment and machines (e.g. printer head, some parts of photocopying machines, etc.) is high enough to cause burns.

  • Ensure that the pots and stoves used in the pantry are of the appropriate size and type so that there is no risk for the pot to tip over. Pots should be properly placed on the stoves.
  • All heating surfaces (stoves) and pots in the pantry should be regarded as hot if uncertain. Pots holding hot substances must not be placed in public areas.
  • Avoid congestion inside the pantry.
  • Improper use of microwave ovens may also cause burns and scald injuries. Never heat food stuff inside air-tight containers. The manufacturer’s operating instructions must be strictly followed.
  • Never put hot drinks in places where they can be easily knocked over. Sufficient warnings should be given to other persons who are nearby when hot substances are being moved or handled.
  • Never touch any hot machine parts (which are normally labeled).


L. Use of Chemicals

The wide range of equipment being used, and activities being carried out in an office setting today have greatly extended the number of chemicals used daily in cleaning, lubricating, printing, developing, copying, toning and other activities. Many of these chemicals are irritant to skin, eyes and mucous membranes and may cause drowsiness, or intoxication. Some even present fire risks. Staff using these chemicals should be fully aware of their hazards. Manufacturer’s instructions for use must be explicitly followed.

More information on chemical safety can be found in Chapter 8 of this manual.


M. Working Postures

Office jobs usually involve long periods of sitting, writing, reading, operating computers, etc. Improper working postures create various physical problems such as neck and back pains and other musculoskeletal problems etc. These types of health problems are commonly associated with office sedentary workers.

The following guidelines should help to reduce these problems :

  • The workstation should be properly laid out so as to minimize the physical stresses that will be imposed on the worker.
  • Chairs should be comfortable to sit in for extended periods, and should be adjustable to fit the user. The following are guidelines for properly adjusting chairs:

    a.normally be adjusted to such a height that the thighs of the user are parallel to the floor.

    b.the backrest of the chair should be firmly padded to provide good lumbar support.

    c.the backrest should be set neither too far back nor too far forward, and it should not be so large as to restrict movements of arms and shoulders.

    d.the seat and the front edge of the seat should be well padded so that it will not press uncomfortably on the buttocks or thighs of the worker.

    e.the distance between the seat and working height (desktop, workbench, keyboard, etc.) should be between 210 mm and 300 mm.

    f.the underside of the worktop should clear the seat by at least 170 mm, and have sufficient leg room in order to facilitate postural change.

  • A suitable work routine should be planned so that essential relaxation can be provided to the worker by physical movement away from the desk. Periodic stretching exercises during the day’s work should also be encouraged.

See Appendix 14A to this chapter for exercises for office workers.


N. Problems and Precautions for Working with Computers

Working with computers has become a major part of office works. Besides the problems associated with prolonged sitting as described above, other potential health problems have been identified among computer users, such as eye strain and injuries of the muscles, tendons and nerves of the wrists, arms, shoulders, neck and back. Injuries of this sort are often called "repetitive stress injuries" (RSI).


I. Legal Requirement

To protect the safety and health of employees who need to use computers and other display screen equipment at work for prolonged periods of time, a regulation entitled "Occupational Safety and Health (Display Screen Equipment) Regulation" was enacted by the Hong Kong SAR Government and has become fully in force in April 2003. This regulation applies to the operations of the University. Details of the regulation are explained in this webpage. 


II. Eye Strain Problems

Visual problems such as eyestrain and irritation are among the most frequently reported complaints by computer operators. These visual symptoms can result from improper lighting, glare from the screen, poor positioning of the screen itself, or copy material that is difficult to read. These problems usually can be corrected by adjusting the physical and environmental setting where the computer users work. The following guidelines for work station layout can help in reducing eye strain problems:

  1. Workstations and lighting should be arranged so as to avoid direct and reflected glare in the field of sight, from the display screen, or surrounding surfaces.
  2. The screen should be properly adjusted to obtain a readable and stable image. The contrast on the screen should also be adjusted to a comfortable level.
  3. Background illumination for computer operation should be lower than that for general office work since a high illumination level will promote glare and reduce the contrast and visibility of the screen image. It is suggested that the illumination level for screen-based work should be reduced to 500 lux or less.
  4. To prevent visual overload caused by alternate light and dark areas, the difference in illuminance between the display screen, horizontal work surface, and surrounding areas should be minimized.
  5. The display screen should be placed directly in front of the operator, at a height that is slightly below eye-level and about 500 mm away from the operator.
  6. The source document (if any) should be placed next to the screen. The document distance from the operator should be the same as that for the screen so that the operator does not have to change focus frequently between the two surfaces which can aggravate the eyestrain problem.

Additional information can be obtained from the online training module on "Setting up and working at a proper computer workstation".

Also see Appendix 14A to this chapter for eye exercises for office workers.


III. Fatigue and Musculoskeletal Problems

Work performed at computers may require sitting still for considerable time and usually involves frequent movements of the eyes, head, arms, and fingers which may result in fatigue.

Computer users are also subject to a potential risk of developing various musculoskeletal and nerve disorders. Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) is one commonly recognized cumulative trauma disorder among computer users caused by repetitive wrist-hand movement and exertion.

To eliminate or reduce these problems, the following should be observed:

  1. Proper seating should be arranged as described above.
  2. Document holders should be used to allow the operator to position and view material without straining the eyes, neck, shoulder and back muscles.
  3. To alleviate the problem of CTS, the arms of the operator should be parallel to the floor when operating the keyboard. Wrist and forearm support will be very helpful for prolonged operation.
  4. Exercise breaks.

Additional information can be obtained from the online training module on "Setting up and working at a proper computer workstation".

Also see Appendix 14A for exercises for office workers.


Appendix 14A

Workstation Exercises

The following exercises should help to relieve some of the physical complaints/discomfort associated with sedentary work:

Visual exercises can help reduce eye strain. Try the following:

  • At least every 15 to 20 minutes change your focus away from the terminal for a few seconds, and look at something at least 20 feet away. Repeat several times.
  • Try palming at the same time. Form shallow cups with the palms of your hands and place them over your closed eyes for a few seconds. Repeat several times.
  • Blink often. But slowly, to allow your eyes to moisten.

And when you take a break, opt for non-visually demanding diversions. Keep in mind that reading your favourite novel or doing close work may contribute to eye fatigue, so try to rest your eyes on your time off.

While working when you cannot walk away from your terminal, there are exercises you can do in place. For the most benefit you should do these exercises frequently throughout the day. Try each of the following several times:

  • Begin with deep breathing and shoulder shrugs. Bring your shoulders up, breathe in, release.
  • Stretch your chin forward towards the screen and bring it back. Then tuck your chin down, and slowly drop your head to stretch the back of your neck. Come up slowly. Gentlely roll your head from side to side.
  • Do shoulder rolls. Raise your shoulders up towards your ears and rotate them back, then rotate forward.
  • Do elbow squeezes. Squeeze your elbows together behind your back, release.
  • Do arm stretches. Stretch your right arm up, left arm down, stretch and hold. Reverse, left arm up, right arm down, stretch and hold.
  • Stretch your legs forward and flex your feet up and down. Move your legs like you’re walking in place.
  • If you can stand by your workstation, put your hands at the small of your back and slowly arch back. Don’t do a gymnastic back bend, just a small stretch.