Eyecare: Look to the horizon

Why should employers provide eyecare that goes beyond the statutory minimum? Mike Hale investigates.

Making judgements about the level of benefits to offer employees can involve a difficult balancing act between consideration of staff morale and protecting the bottom line. With the recession looking set to continue into 2010 – in the UK at least – many companies are understandably paying increased attention to the latter. However, the provision of eyecare is an area that can offer tangible benefits and savings to employees without increasing costs for employers.

At the heart of employee eyecare matters are the Health and Safety (Digital Screen Equipment) Regulations, which came into effect in 1992. This requires employers to provide eye tests to all employees who use visual display units (VDUs) at work. If the employee is found to be unable to use VDUs and does not require glasses otherwise, the employer has to cover the cost of a basic pair of corrective glasses. This is typically less than 10% of a company’s workforce, and employers’ early fears that this would be costly proved unfounded.

Perhaps the easiest way to provide coverage for staff VDU testing is to use a voucher scheme. These pre-paid vouchers, which are available from companies including Accor, Boots Eyecare, ASE Corporate Eyecare and Specsavers, can be distributed among the workforce and entitle the holder to an eye test and glasses if needed.

A company going down this route is able to precisely budget its expenditure on eyecare, as there is no variation in the cost of tests. It can also save on the associated costs of administration and processing expense claims. An additional advantage is that employees with low levels of disposable income are not expected to pay up front and then wait for their money to be reimbursed.

For companies that want to offer more to their employees, it may be worth considering paying a higher premium for vouchers that can be used by the family and friends of employees. The provision of vouchers through flexible benefits schemes is a tax-efficient option and can improve company loyalty.

Laser surgery

Another area of eyecare that can be offered to employees is laser surgery. For example, signing up with Optical Express’s corporate eyecare programme gives a company’s employees access to laser vision assessments and discounts should they elect to undergo surgery. A factor to consider here is, in the very rare event of a bad outcome to surgery, the employer could be liable for damages.

On the subject of liability, the issue of providing eye tests for people who drive as part of their job has been under increased scrutiny since the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 placed the burden of responsibility for fatal work-related injuries on employers. Research by the Royal National Institute for the Blind suggests that as many as 13 million drivers in the UK do not have regular eyesight tests. If a road fatality is caused by an employee’s substandard vision, the employer could be liable for damages.

To protect themselves effectively from such liability, employers should consider developing an eyecare policy for drivers that ensures regular checks are made and corrective glasses provided to those who need them. Setting up such a strategy now is likely to pay dividends in the future, as EU legislation could make regular eye examinations for commercial drivers compulsory by 2013.

Most of the major providers of corporate eyecare have vouchers that are specifically designed for companies with employees who drive as part of their job. Despite the increased cost, these vouchers are usually not subject to tax.

“The VDU vouchers are definitely not a taxable benefit,” says Laura Butler, corporate account manager for Specsavers Corporate Eyecare. “I have never heard of our optical service vouchers for drivers being classed as a taxable benefit, but this does depend on an individual tax office’s policy, so it is best to check.”

Driving down risk

Risk factors for drivers who travel more than 25,000 miles a year:

  • 1 in 8,000 risk of death
  • 1 in 5,000 chance of a vehicle occupant being killed in an accident
  • 1 in 400 chance of a vehicle occupant being seriously injured in an accident
  • 1 in 100 chance of a vehicle causing a car-related injury every year.

Source: Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA)

Case study: BT

Global communications provider BT has recently opted to offer improved eyecare provision to employees by using Specsavers Corporate Eyecare (SCE).

The telecoms giant says that since then it has received higher take-up levels, administrative advantages and positive feedback from employees.

About half of BT’s 90,000 employees now use visual display unit (VDU) or safety vouchers.

BT’s HR department says that there have been particular advantages for a large company with staff in multiple locations to use a large chain that has more than 600 stores in the UK and offers consistent cost, products and service.

BT’s previous supplier relied on employees finding their own optician, a system that resulted in varying charges. VDU vouchers from SCE cost a uniform £17 for the eye examination and entitle the holder to a pair of VDU spectacles from its £45 range, if required.

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