The increasing popularity of co-working spaces, where people can rent desk space and share facilities with their co-tenants, is indicative of how the way we work is evolving. However, advises Stephen Flounders, change and innovation often introduce new risks, and co-working spaces are no exception.

Providing a safe co-working space

Those who operate co-working spaces have a duty to ensure that, so far as is reasonably practicable, the space and any equipment provided within it is safe. Those using the space, often referred to as members, must ensure that their work does not put their employees and others at risk.

Co-working spaces generally operate on a philosophy of creating open, accessible environments with a feeling of collaboration and community. If this philosophy is to be realised, operators must provide spaces which enable members to work safely and without risk to their health. Some of their key responsibilities, which apply to the whole of the working space and across all members, are outlined below.

Risk assessment

All operators should carry out a risk assessment to help control the risks in their co-working space. To do this, operators need to think about what might cause harm to people and decide whether they are taking reasonable steps to prevent that harm.

The risk assessment does not need to be unwieldy and complicated, it should instead be about identifying sensible measures to protect members and others who use and visit the space. Operators should think about how accidents and ill health could happen and concentrate on real risks — those that are most likely, and which will cause the most harm. Operators may choose to follow a simple five-step approach to risk assessment where they:

  • identify the hazards, ie the things that may cause harm

  • decide who might be harmed and how

  • evaluate the risks and decide on precautions

  • record the significant findings

  • review the risk assessment after a period of time and update it if necessary.

Fire safety

Managing fire safety is a crucial part of providing a safe co-working space. Operators should carry out a fire risk assessment, which takes into account the different work activities that are being undertaken in the shared space, as well as a general health and safety risk assessment. The assessment will enable operators to put measures in place to minimise the risk of injury or loss of life in the event of a fire. It should identify what could cause a fire to start, what substances and materials will burn and cause a fire to spread, and the people who may be at risk.

Operators should also develop a fire and emergency plan that details the actions that are needed in the event of a fire, including how members, those requiring assistance and visitors should leave the premises.

Other things operators can do to help reduce the risk of a fire include:

  • keeping sources of ignition and flammable substances apart

  • ensuring good housekeeping at all times and avoiding a build-up of rubbish that could burn

  • installing suitable fire detection and warning systems throughout the space

  • keeping fire exits and escape routes clearly marked and unobstructed at all times.

Workstations and furniture

Operators will often provide furniture, including workstation desks and chairs, for their members to use. Co-working spaces use a range of desks and chairs to promote a sense of collaboration and openness. While there will always be a desire for furniture to match the look and feel of the space, it’s important to find the right balance between furniture that is aesthetically and functionally right, and furniture that ensures the health and wellbeing of members.

Includingergonomics principles when selecting furniture will help ensure that the furniture not only looks right, but is also the right furniture for members to use without increasing their risk of back pain and similar problems. Operators should consider providing:

  • adjustable chairs so that people can adjust the height and backrest for their own comfort

  • desks that are of suitable width and depth for people to work comfortably and without obstructing others

  • a variety of workstations, such as height adjustable desks and bench desks, that encourage people to move around throughout the day.

Accessibility

For a co-working space to appeal to as many potential members and visitors as possible, operators should ensure their space is accessible to people with disabilities and make adjustments where necessary. Accessibility should be considered when designing the space and its features to avoid costly remedial works further down the line. An accessibility audit will also help operators identify areas where improvements can be made.

Asking some simple questions can help operators decide how accessible their premises are. This could include thinking about whether:

  • it is easy to find the main entrance to the building

  • signage is clear, unambiguous and unobstructed

  • elevators have suitable aids for people with impairments such as visual, hearing or mobility

  • toilets are accessible and include certain features, such as adequate width for a wheelchair user

  • enough trained staff are on hand to provide assistance if needed.

Communicating with members

Operators and members should communicate and co-operate with each other when it comes to health and safety. It’s important for operators to tell their members about relevant health and safety information so members can follow rules and procedures and also look after their own employees.

Some important things that operators should tell members about include:

  • the arrangements for fire and emergencies, including first aid

  • how members should report accidents and incidents that happen in the co-working space

  • any risks associated with the building, for example whether there is asbestos in areas where members may work or visit, and whether any areas are “out of bounds”

  • how to adjust workstation furniture and chairs and who to ask if they need help

  • accessible features in the building and what assistance is available if needed

  • when contractors are going to be on-site to carry out maintenance or repairs that may impact on members.

Members have responsibilities too

It is important for members to be satisfied that they are working in a safe environment, but they also have responsibilities for health and safety. Members are responsible for ensuring the health and safety of their employees and others who may be affected by their work. Considerations for members include:

  • telling operators and other members about any risks associated with their work, such as equipment and substances that they may use

  • using all equipment and facilities provided by the operator correctly and in line with instructions

  • making sure any equipment they provide to their employees is safe to use

  • communicating relevant information to their employees and guests.

Operators who consider the health, safety and welfare of staff and members to be of paramount importance can reap many benefits for themselves and their members. A safe and healthy working environment can play a key role in creating open, accessible environments with a feeling of collaboration and community.

Stephen Flounders is Head of Health and Safety at System Concepts.

Last reviewed 8 May 2018