Carrying out a risk assessment of the workplace for blind or partially sighted people doesn’t have to be difficult, but it can sometimes be a daunting prospect.
If you haven’t worked with blind people before, it can be very easy to over-estimate risks or make assumptions about what blind people can or can't do.
At RNIB we know that risks can be managed successfully and we want to share good practice. We hope that this guidance will help you to reach informed decisions and overcome unnecessary barriers. Most importantly, we hope that this guidance helps ensure that blind and partially sighted people can continue to work effectively and safely.
Employers often contact RNIB to ask for advice about specific worries they have about the safety of a blind or partially sighted colleague. Things we have been asked about include:
Both the quality and quantity of lighting has a significant impact on working environments. Individual blind and partially sighted people can have very different lighting needs. Increasing general "background" lighting levels might not necessarily make a working environment safer or more comfortable. It might be more effective to introduce additional light sources, rather than make the existing fittings brighter.
As well as the amount of light, the source of light is an important factor. Many people find that natural light is best, so consider how to make the best use of light from windows. Light fittings emulating natural light (daylight bulbs) can be very effective.
The key to resolving lighting issues is to talk to the people involved and call in specialists where necessary. Sometimes simple changes can make a huge difference to a working environment. At other times, more work is required to strike a balance between the needs of one individual among a group of other employees.
It is true that people with sight loss are more likely to trip than sighted people. Yet, when we introduce controls to reduce risk, it is important to keep a sense of perspective.
Most blind and partially sighted people can navigate around buildings and other workplaces perfectly safely. Introducing "no-go" areas, such as stairs or in specific areas you perceive as dangerous, can be discriminatory. It is very unlikely that the only way to manage potential trip hazards is to exclude people from certain areas, as other alternative steps can be taken to reduce risk. If you feel strongly that there are parts of a workplace that aren’t safe, you should seek advice.
While risk assessing the use of stairs, assume that people with sight loss are subject to the same risks as any other employee. Any measures you might take to reduce risk will apply to all employees.
Consider the lighting on the stairs, highlighting the treads as opposed to the risers to emphasise each step. Make sure lighting doesn’t cause glare. Stair coverings shouldn’t have a pattern that causes visual confusion between one tread and another.
Making physical changes of this type may be the responsibility of your landlord, but this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t raise the issues with them.
Safe use of computer systems
Employers are required to complete general risk assessments of display screen equipment for each employee. In addition to this, employees will often highlight difficulties in using computer systems related to their sight.
Unless the individual knows exactly what is required, it is a good idea to seek specialist advice. RNIB technology advisors are able to recommend ways to change the way screens look, or alternative ways of accessing screen content. A work-based assessment can advise about specialist technology solutions if that is appropriate.
Employers often have legitimate concerns about blind or partially sighted people operating power tools, hand tools or other machinery. It is important to discuss with an individual exactly how their sight restricts them and how real the risks are. Bear in mind that some new employees may underplay any difficulties as they may have had negative experiences with past employers.
Consider the environment in which people will be working. If you can control the immediate work area, machinery can be made safe to use. For example, in a factory, machines can be fitted with guards and walkways restricted to improve the safety of the work environment. If you are in doubt, ask for advice.
Evacuating the building
Most blind and partially sighted people will understand the need for plans to deal with unexpected evacuations, for example, in the case of fire. Employers generally deal with evacuation routes, procedures and assembly points during an employee’s induction period. Staff with sight loss will welcome the chance to familiarise themselves with the main routes and practise leaving the building by emergency exits.
It is important to ensure that written evacuation procedures are available in different formats during induction. Having an electronic version available will allow most users of access technology to read them.
Further information can be found in the publication “Fire Safety Risk Assessment: Means of Escape for Disabled People”, Department of Communities and Local Government, 2007.
Mobility and travel
When considering potential risks involved in travelling, it is important to bear in mind that most blind or partially sighted people will travel easily with no problems, though some may need support. Individuals should be consulted when considering potential risks with travel. It is good practice to ensure that any concerns about mobility are kept in perspective - issues should not be blown out of proportion.
If an individual is looking for mobility support for specific parts of their travel, two agencies might be able to help:
In each local authority area, there are mobility specialists, sometimes known as rehabilitation workers, who can help people use mobility aids and learn to navigate routes. They either work for the local authority or the Health and Social Care Trust.
The Access to Work scheme supports people at work, and individuals can apply for financial assistance to travel to and from work and within work.
Guide dogs in the workplace
Guide dogs are one example of an aid to mobility. However, it has been estimated that as few as one or two per cent of blind or partially sighted people use guide dogs to get around. Don't assume that people either use guide dogs, or will choose to bring them to work. If in doubt about any aspect of working with guide dogs, representatives from Guide Dogs will want to help you with this. Email: [email protected] or call them on 0118 983 5555.
Working alone is an integral part of many jobs, and it is an area that often raises concerns for employers. But while there may be occasions when a blind or partially sighted person is exposed to risk, these risks are often no greater than a sighted colleague would face.
Many blind or partially sighted people work successfully and safely on their own, sometimes in challenging environments. Your starting point for managing risks should be the systems you already have in place for your lone workers. Your local working practices must be robust and comprehensive, so that the work of all of your lone-working employees is covered. Your blind or partially sighted employee is no different in this respect.
Having an understanding of what a person can or cannot see will make it easier to discuss risks. Most of the time, your blind or partially sighted employee is the best person to describe this to you.
Caring for others
Many blind and partially sighted people work in jobs where they provide social care services. This can include working in nurseries, care homes and delivering community services. Employers sometimes have concerns about certain aspects of working that could be perceived as dangerous. We have some specific guidance about staff with sight loss who care for others available here.