Companies could be open to civil law suits and even criminal prosecutions if researchers' claims that office printers are dangerous prove true, according to a medical legal expert.
A team of Australian scientists says that printers can damage your health in the same way as cigarette smoke. They say that some printers should come with health warnings.
"If this finding is verified, it would open up a Pandora's box of civil claims and criminal liabilities under health and safety laws", says Dr Simon Joyston-Bechal, a doctor and specialist in health and safety law at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM.
The research was conducted by the Queensland University of Technology. It found that 17 of the 62 printers tested emitted tiny particles of a substance like printer toner that were so small that they could penetrate a human lung, causing breathing problems.
Though the team had not conducted a full chemical analysis of all particles, but reports have emerged that some could be carcinogens.
The research linked the particles to printer use by testing the air in an office in and out of working hours. It revealed that the elements were five times denser in office hours than out of them, and even more prevalent when ink-heavy image files were being printed.
The quality of air in offices is already regulated in the UK by the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations.
The Health and Safety Executive has published guidance on how to deal with wide format inkjet printing. It says that printers should only be housed in well ventilated rooms, with wall or window-mounted fans to increase the supply of fresh air. It says that sealed replacement cartridges should be used where possible.
"I would advise against panic and knee jerk reaction on this, and in favour of a measured and documented assessment of the risks arising and whether on a precautionary basis certain precautions ought to be undertaken," said Joyston-Bechal. "This could include monitoring the research and taking considered professional advice."
Joyston-Bechal said most health and safety risks with printers are well-known and documented. They range from electrical hazards, noise, dusts and fumes to exposure to hazardous chemicals which can cause respiratory problems, including occupational asthma, and dermatitis
These risks are controlled in the UK through several health and safety regulations, notably the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992; the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) and the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005. Primarily aimed at commercial printing organisations, the Health & Safety Executive, in partnership with the Printing Industry Advisory Committee, has published a suite of 50 guidance notes, COSHH essentials for printers.
"This latest research comes as part of a long line of increasing evidence of the deleterious effects of inhaled dusts on the human body," said Joyston-Bechal. "Indeed, many dusts already have EU-wide Workplace Exposure Limits (WELs), which place legally enforceable upper limits on exposure to air-borne dusts."
"Undoubtedly, the EU and Health & Safety Executive will review the latest findings carefully with a view to updating the published guidance and WELs," he said. "In the meantime, employers should review their procedures and COSHH assessments to ensure that they comply with the current regulations and guidance with, as appropriate, specialist advice from a qualified Occupational Hygienist."
Employers with a few small office printers which are routinely maintained and situated in well-ventilated areas have no reason to panic, said Joyston-Bechal.