Office hazards: Photocopiers, printers etc

Photocopiers, laser printers, and other electronic duplicating devices are a regular feature of the modern office environment, and some employees may be engaged in their operation for large amounts of time.

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Action plan for health and safety representatives

As with all workplace hazards, photocopiers and other copying equipment should be dealt with in this way:

  1. Identification of the hazard 
  2. Assessment of the risk
  3. Control: Elimination or reduction of the risk
  4. Review and evaluation of any control strategies.

1 - Identification of the hazard

  • The employer must obtain the safety data sheets (SDSs) for any chemical used by a photocopier or other piece of machinery, including toner and glass cleaners, and make these available to you. These are now usually able to be downloaded from the website of the manufacturer.
  • The employer must carry out an assessment of the work procedures involved in copying to identify any risks of manual handling (for example shifting, carrying, reaching reams of paper) or exposure to contaminants.
  • Talk to your members about the possible health and safety effects of using copying equipment.

2 - Assessment of the risk

  • The SDSs must be checked to ensure all recommended precautions are implemented.
  • Check the conditions in the room the copier is located in.
  • Investigate any past incidents.

3 - Control: Elimination or reduction of the risk

  • If the machine at your workplace is very old (for example one that uses loose toner), negotiate replacement with a newer machine.
  • The manufacturer's recommendations for siting, ventilation, cleaning, servicing, maintenance, and frequency of filter changes must be obtained and followed. Filters that are in working order catch paper dust and destroy ozone.
  • Ensure there is adequate ventilation in the room and around the machine.
  • When replacing toners or using solvents, users should wear rubber or vinyl coated protective gloves and if a liquid toner is used, safety goggles or a face shield. After adding toner, hands and face should be washed immediately.
  • Ensure there is a clear system outlining what cleaning and repairs employees are expected to carry out, such as clearing a minor paper jam, and those for which a specialist technician should be contacted. Employees carrying out minor cleaning and repairs must be given full training and information on technical issues and on health and safety.
  • The copying machine selected, the workplace design and the work schedule should be such that they allow operators to work without risk of musculoskeletal discomfort. For example, the positioning and height of various components should be such that sustained and repetitive postures are avoided.
  • Noise problems can be avoided by placing equipment in a separate room from workers.

As a general rule, the more frequently a copier is used or the more duplicating machinery there are, the more important is a separate room with local (separate) mechanical exhaust ventilation (refer to Australian Standard AS 1668). Properly maintained modern machines placed in well-ventilated areas, and with the appropriate but simple precautions taken, are rarely a hazard.

4 - Review and evaluation of any control strategies

  • Ensure the copying equipment is regularly maintained by a properly trained person.

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The employer has a duty under the Victorian Occupational Health and Safety Act (2004) to provide and maintain for employees, as far as is reasonably practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risks to health. This includes providing safe plant, a safe system of work, information, training, supervision, and where appropriate personal protective equipment. The employer also has the duty to monitor conditions at the workplace and to monitor the health and safety of employees.

Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 - under the consolidated regulations there are various requirements under various chapters of the regulation that may be relevant to photocopiers and other copying equipment in the workplace.  More information on the 2017 OHS Regulations.

Sprains and strains: Under Chapter 3.1 of the Regulations (Physical Hazards:Manual Handling), employers must attempt to eliminate, as far as practicable, manual handling that may cause musculoskeletal injuries to employees. For example, by providing stable trolleys for delivering paper in bulk, ensuring that it is stored near the machines, and providing employees with information and training. 

Chemicals: Under Chapter 4 (Hazardous substances) of the regulations, employers must carry out assessments on all hazardous chemicals used in the workplace. If a hazard is identified, controls must be put in place according to the preferred order. That is to eliminate the hazardous substance, or where this not practicable, substitute it with a less hazardous substance. If this is not practicable, control methods such as local exhaust ventilation, and as a last resort personal protective equipment must be used. Employers must meet the exposure limits set for any substance used in the workplace. If you would like more specific information on any particular chemical, Ask Renata

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What are the health and safety effects of copying equipment?

Discomfort or health effects may arise if machines are poorly sited, inadequately ventilated, poorly maintained or used by operators continually for long periods. 

Laser Printers:  There have been a number of recent studies on the laser printer emissions. Airborne particles within an office environment are a combination of particles generated from various sources, included are laser printers which emit paper fibres, organic vapours and inorganic gases. Research has shown that laser printers emit nanoparticles of substances, which could increase the effects of exposure.

Safe Work Australia publications:


Ozone:  Photocopiers produce small amounts of ozone (an unstable form of oxygen). Ozone is also produced naturally in the upper atmosphere by UV solar radiation. If present in sufficient concentration, this odorous gas is irritating to the eyes, the lungs, the throat and nasal passages. Severe exposure can result in lung damage. Symptoms occur at levels of approximately 0.25 parts per million (ppm) and the current Australian exposure standard is currently at 0.1ppm, averaged over an 8 hour period.

The concentrations of ozone within the breathing zone of the operator depend on the amount of ozone discharged by the copier, the rate of decay of ozone, the volume of air in the room, the temperature and the ventilation in the room. Odour problems with modern copiers and fax machines usually indicate inadequate ventilation.

Selenium and cadmium: The photoconductive material in photocopiers is usually selenium. Cadmium sulphide, zinc oxide and organic polymers are also used. Trace amounts of these materials can become airborne. However, under normal operation, the concentrations of these pollutants are well below those associated with health effects.

Toner materials: The main ingredient in the toner is carbon black. This is:

  • mildly toxic - though some impurities in toners may be carcinogenic. As currently manufactured, carbon blacks contain extremely low levels of impurities and do not warrant concern regarding health effects;
  • a respiratory irritant;
  • may cause eye irritation.

Older machines pose a greater exposure risk, because adding toner may involve transferring loose toner rather than replacing a cartridge, as is the case with newer machines.  A recent study shows that the air in some city offices can be more toxic than the air outside - and the main culprit may be the superfine particles coming from copying machines. 

Liquid toners: Some modern toners are in a liquid form and so rarely irritate the skin, but exposure to solvents within them can dry and crack the skin, and mildly irritate the eyes.The same hazards apply to the various solvents used for cleaning duplicating machines. They also pose a fire risk if not stored adequately. Frequent contact with toner or other solvents may cause dermatitis or asthma.

UV Radiation: Ultra-violet radiation may also be released through the glass plate, but at very low levels. Modern equipment does not present a bright light hazard beyond short-term discomfort to the eyes, but it is recommended that the photocopier lid be kept down.

Other EMR: Electro-magnetic fields (EMFs) are produced by electronic equipment. There are on-going concerns regarding the effects of EMFs (see information on Non-ionising Radiation, on this site). It is recommended that workers should not stand by the photocopier when doing long runs (e.g. 15 minutes). If it is necessary to stand by, then at the distance should be at least 1 metre from the photocopier.

All laser printers are classified as class 1 laser products meaning that under normal conditions the laser radiation (beam) is inaccessible and therefore not a hazard unless the shielding or enclosure around the laser is tampered with, or removed. Only properly trained technicians following the manufacturers safe working procedures should carry out maintenance.

Physical factors: Excessive dry heat can build up if too many machines are placed in a small area, or where their use is frequent and ventilation insufficient. This can cause discomfort to the eyes, and the workplace can become too dry and hot.

Excessive noise may also be experienced in such circumstances, or where the machines are old or poorly maintained. Printers in frequent use and close to a workstation can impair concentration.

Clearing paper jams in printers and other duplicating machinery will expose users to hot or moving parts, sharp edges, pinch points, or exposed electrical parts. Modern machines should have such risks designed out and should turn off automatically upon opening of the machine. However, a machine must always be disconnected from the power supply before opening.

Handling paper or collating copies are manual handling risks.

Copying hazards harm office workers 

A Finnish study has concluded that exposure to copy paper and fumes from office printers increases the incidence of sick building syndrome (SBS) symptoms and respiratory problems for office workers. Researchers studied 342 office workers, assessing their exposure to carbonless copy paper (CCP), paper dust, and fumes from photocopiers and printers (FPP) and then measured symptoms such as headache and fatigue, and nasal, eye, throat and skin symptoms; chronic respiratory symptoms (cough, phlegm production, chronic bronchitis, wheezing); and respiratory infections (common colds, tonsil infections, sinus infections, pneumonia).

The study found a "strikingly consistent" association between the three exposures and the incidence of headache and fatigue. The risk of breathlessness and chronic bronchitis was also consistently related to all three exposures, suggesting airborne exposure to irritant agents.

Office work exposures and respiratory and sick building syndrome symptoms. Maritta S Jaakkola, et al, Finland. OEM Online doi:10.1136/oem.2005.024596 

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3D Printers

This is a new technology and a relatively new industry, and so there is not much known about the possible impact on safety and health at work.  In July 2017, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA)  published an expert review providing a brief introduction to 3D printing and examining the risks involved in it. The hazards include exposure to hazardous substances, the proliferation of non-conforming building products and poor worker well-being.

The review provides readers with a better understanding of the issues and of the changes needed to ensure risks are identified and minimised - for example, it recommends workplace ventilation for some materials used in 3D printing, but says it should be mandatory for others.
Read more: 3D Printing review publication.

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See also

Last amended September 2020