Eye care for employees: Focusing on costs

Employers’ interpretations of the regulations around workplace eye care are far from clear. Rob Moss finds many have a blinkered approach to eye care benefits, which is costing them dear.

Ask a builder for a quote as part of an insurance claim and the chances are the estimate will come in high. Walk into an opticians declaring that your company is going to pay for some new glasses and there’s likely to be a similar outcome. Nevertheless, most companies let their employees do just this.

Sixteen years after the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment (DSE)) Regulations came into force, some employers still don’t have a firm handle on what is required. And of those that do, their approach is often ad hoc and costly.

Employers are obliged under the DSE regulations to provide sight tests for any employees who use computer screens and other displays. If glasses are prescribed to operate the display screen equipment, the employer is then required to provide those glasses for them.

Most employers are aware of this requirement. According to 2008 Health & Safety Executive (HSE) research, just over half (53%) of organisations provided tests. For larger organisations (300+ employees), 100% of those surveyed provided sight tests.

Eye care costs

The same HSE research, however, shows that nearly 70% of employers let employees make their own arrangements. Smaller companies are most guilty of this, but of larger organisations 50% said the employee makes their own arrangement and is reimbursed. Jim Lythgow, director of strategic relations at Specsavers Corporate Eyecare, says this is when eye-care costs “go stratospheric”.

“If you allow your employee to go to their local optician and the employee tells the local optician, ‘My company’s paying for this,’ you can speculate on what the result will be,” suggests Lythgow.

A quarter of larger organisations have direct arrangements with an optician. This can work, says Lythgow, but for larger organisations it can become logistically difficult and it limits patient choice.

The HSE research shows that voucher schemes are increasingly popular, with 11% using this method in 2007, compared to 2% in 1997. Among larger companies voucher scheme participation has increased from 15 to 40%.

The cost of eye-care vouchers varies considerably. Some start at under £20 for an eye test, frames and lenses – the optician is willing to make a short-term loss for what it hopes will be a long-term patient. Other vouchers are around £20 for the sight test, with supplementary vouchers of around £50 to pay for glasses if the optician believes they are necessary.

Compare this to allowing an individual to make their own arrangements, and an employer could be facing a bill of hundreds of pounds.

Asked why so many organisations still reimburse, Andrew Adams, eye-care voucher specialist at Accor Services, which provides eye-care vouchers through a network of more than 7,000 opticians, says that many companies believe the adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

“It’s costing companies a lot of money. The national average for an eye test is now over £25,” says Adams. “By implementing a voucher scheme, employers have an element of control because the price of the eye test is fixed.

“If someone goes to an optician and the sight test is £40, which can happen, then under the legislation the employer is obliged to reimburse the full amount.”

Lythgow agrees that costs can soon escalate, particularly when an optometrist prescribes glasses for VDU use. “If, and only if, the employee requires them solely for VDU use, then the employer will pay for these as well.”

But this is where employers frequently trip up,explains Lythgow. By not understanding the DSE regulations and by not having a voucher scheme in place, they frequently over-comply, paying for vision correction that under the legislation does not need to be funded.

“We are in a recession, budgets are being cut,” says Lythgow. “If employers are providing benefits over and above the legislation then it’s important that they know they’re doing that and providing it as an additional added-value benefit.”

Driving vision

By addressing their eye care policy, benefits specialists may be able to deliver significant savings at a time when all HR directors are searching for ways tocutcosts. They should also assess whether their employees whodrive are doing so with good vision, an issue that has grown in prominence since the Corporate Manslaughter Act (CMA) came into force last year.

Adams says most organisations check to ensure a driving licence is valid but they ignore a driver’s vision. Lythgow points out that implicit in a driving licence is the fact that an examiner has asked the driver to read a number plate from distance, a test widely described as insufficient by vision experts.

Adams and Lythgow both believe the CMA could make employers accountable for their staff’s vision – for example, while driving on company business – but concede that there has yet to be a test case.

“If an employee is involved in a fatal accident due to poor eyesight, while driving on business,the employer could be liable to be prosecuted under the Act if significant management failures can be identified in the checking procedure, such as checking the driver’s eyesight was adequate to drive,” says Adams.

Low risk

However, Kevin Bridges, a senior associate at law firm Pinsent Masons, who specialises in health and safety, believes that the risk of employers appearing in the dock on corporate manslaughter charges is low.

“The employer has no legal obligation to check an employee’s vision for driving. The employee has an obligation to inform the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) if they have a medical condition that could affect their driving, and this would include changes to their vision,” says Bridges.

Nevertheless, laws are on the horizon that may increase an employer’s responsibility to ensure drivers are able to see clearly and adequately. Legislation passed in Europe in 2006 to be introduced to member states in 2011 may affect how often drivers need to have their sight tested.

The current proposal is that holders of commercial licences will have to have their eyes tested every five years, and holders of private licences every 10-15 years. Member states have until 2013 to enact the directive into national law.

But Bridges warns that until the legislation is in UK law, it is not possible to speculate how it might affect employers.

Whether driving presents employers with similar obligations for employee eye care to those for display screen equipment remains to be seen. What is clear is that organisations that do not have a cost-effective approach to employee eye care risk not only paying out unnecessarily, but also that their employees will perceive these payouts as a requirement rather than a perk.

Lythgow concludes: “There are a lot of employees out there walking around with bifocal lenses and reading books at home, all paid for by their employers, which is great, but [employers] don’t have to do it.”

Benefits of DSE compliance: 2007 (1997)

  • 56% of organisations said compliance improved employee morale
  • 54% said it reduced stress
  • 48% said it improved productivity
  • 35% said it reduced sickness absence

Source: HSE 2008

Money box

Cut costs now:

  • Don’t deal with it on an ad hoc basis
  • Understand the legislation
  • Assess the market – know the cost of sight tests and glasses
  • Have a clear eye care policy
  • Decide if you want to simply comply with regulations or whether employees should ‘feel’ a benefit.

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