How to Handle the Legal Requirements When Planning the Office


It is often said that ignorance is no excuse at law, yet the rules and regulations that control our use of office space are so nu­merous, so complex and so phrased in legalistic jargon that even experienced administrators may find them difficult to under­stand. Because of their complexity they were often ignored by many small businesses who had no inclination to waste time on anything seemingly so unproductive.

With this in mind and faced with the increasing tide of acci­dents at work, the Health and Safety at Work Act was intro­duced in 1974. Its purpose was threefold: to put greater legal emphasis on accident prevention; to define accurately the onus of responsibility; and to simplify previous legislation by bring­ing under one authority a wide range of rules and regulations introduced over many decades.

Legal Requirements

So far, because of other priorities, little in the field of simplification and standardisation has been achieved. We are still faced with all the old rules and regulations in all their complexity.

So what action should the small businessman take to ensure his business conforms to the law? He could rely solely on outside advice. Just as his lawyer and accountant give advice on their specialist disciplines, so similarly his estate agent or building surveyor will advise on requirements of the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act. His architect or interior designer will he able to advise him on how to meet the conditions laid down by Building Regulations or London Building Acts and the Fire precautions Act, and his insurance broker will arrange the necessary cover to be provided under the Employers’ Liability Act and the Occupiers’ Liability Act.

However, this is probably not sufficient. Small businesses grow fast, demand more staff, more space, more facilities, and the investment in these is substantial. It should not be jeopardised by plans based on ignorance of statutory require­ments.

The small business owner should also bear in mind that the responsibility for the health, safety and welfare of all employees is his and his alone. He cannot blame bad advice if accidents occur. The wise businessman will therefore balance outside ad­vice with his own efforts to keep up to date on the broad out­line, purpose and intent of legislation. He can then assess the effects not only on his current situation but also of the impact of rules and regulations on his future expansion plans.

What in fact are his responsibilities? The legislation states: ‘He must ensure as far as is reasonably practical the health, safety and welfare of all his employees’ and this is defined under five headings:

  • Safety with office equipment and plant
  • Safety in handling or storage of materials
  • Provision of instruction and training
  • Maintenance of a safe building
  • Provision of a safe working environment within the building

These rules are applied to every building, irrespective of location and size, where the prime use is as an office. Numbers of staff are irrelevant provided they work more than 21 hours per week. Where doubt exists, compliance in terms of reasonable prac­ticality is seen as adhering to and following accepted national and industry based codes of practice.

So much for the spirit and intent. What is the scope of the legis­lation? The main points have already been referred to. Their impact on everyday office life is discussed by category below.

Administration

Paperwork and form filling is an integral part of all legislation The Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act details what is re­quired. It relates to the registration of office premises, reporting of accidents, application for fire certificate and the display of an abstract of the Act itself.

Insurance

The Employers’ Liability Act and the Occupiers’ Liability Act detail the insurance coyer that must be provided for both staff and visitors while on your premises.

Working conditions

The Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act details quite com­prehensively the minimum standards which determine density of occupation, natural light, ventilation and heating. The Act also specifies standards of welfare and amenities in terms of numbers of toilets, the provision of washing facilities, drinking water, coat storage, and the availability of first aid.

Safety and fire precautions

The Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act and the Fire Pre­cautions Act deal with this aspect. This legislation covers the provision and testing of fire alarms, the need for fire drills and the maintenance of and access to escape routes. The Health and Safety Act has established rules governing the fencing and guarding of machinery and requires all users to be instructed on the dangers and the precautions to be taken. Heavy work is also banned without the proper equipment.

Constructional maintenance

The majority of the rules and regulations which govern meth­ods of construction, the choice and use of materials and the standards of workmanship required, come within the scope of Building Regulations (or, within the Greater London area, the London Building Acts). This subject is so complex and so de­tailed, there is little purpose in attempting any summary. Suffice it to say that they are in force to provide minimum stand­ards of safety in design and construction, to safeguard the health and security of the public and to prevent or mitigate the incidence of fire. Their interpretation and application is there­after best left to your consultants or to an experienced design team.

Alterations and improvements

Most alterations or additions that involve significant structural works will be carried out under the supervision of an architect or other competent specialist. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that all alterations and additions, even of a minor nature, such as changes to partitions, extra lighting runs etc, not only require local authority approval but also can bring existing circumstances and conditions within the scope of regulations retrospectively.

Legal Requirements

This means that new regulations introduced do not normally have retrospective implications on buildings or surfaces already in existence. However, once you start to alter, modify or improve such buildings you can become liable to bring old work up to certain standards which are now mandatory. This is often very costly, as the type of works most often required to be up­dated relate to stairs, toilets and perhaps even the reinforce­ment of structural elements.

Conclusion

Many small businessmen may consider all this to be yet more bureaucratic interference, another administrative millstone which diverts their energies into unprofitable and often frus­trating fields. They may feel that, if the information they pro­vide is limited, so too will be the level of such interference. To do this is to misread the spirit and intent of the law and to allow its inadequacies of form and language to cloud judgement. It is a mistake which can lead to prosecution and is one which many have regretted. Consultation and negotiations with both local authorities and specialist consultants will actually speed up the whole process of design, approval and implementation, and could well save time and money. It will certainly help in the successful development and expansion of the business by pro­viding a pleasant, safe working environment.

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About the Author: Marie Mayle is a contributor to the MegaHowTo team, writer, and entrepreneur based in California USA. She holds a degree in Business Administration. She loves to write about business and finance issues and how to tackle them.

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