After a year, for many of us, of being glued to our screens while working from home, reports of workers suffering from eye or visual discomfort are rising sharply. Employers that fail to address digital eye health alongside their ergonomic duty of care, may find themselves in for a bumpy ride, argue Sarah Arnold and Deborah Young.
The average person now spends more than 13 hours a day on a screen and the level of visual discomfort increases with screen time. As such, reports estimate that up to 90% of screen users experience symptoms of eye discomfort and, in 2020, The College of Optometrists reported that millions of Brits could be suffering from a range of eye problems dubbed ‘coronavision’.
Screen use and eye health
Though excessive screen work is unlikely to lead to permanent harm to vision, digital eye strain, also known as “computer vision syndrome”, is now the most common computer-related repetitive strain injury among workers, surpassing carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis. Common symptoms associated with digital eye strain include dry eyes, tired eyes, headaches, blurred vision, screen glare and associated neck pain.
Increased screen time amongst staff is posing a variety of problems to the visual health of employees with risks ranging from a nuisance to much more serious, debilitating and potentially long-term injuries.
Need for ‘eye-gonomic’ practices
The number of patients coming into Eyes for Work experiencing symptoms of digital eye strain has increased by 30% since the first lockdown last year. Many patients are concerned that their employers have offered little, if any, support to remote workers, contravening their duty of care. The physical and psychological impact of ignoring good ‘eye-gonomic’ and ergonomic practices can be far reaching.
Eye-gonomics in this context is the science of optimising occupational vision and structuring work environments/practices to nurture sustainable eye comfort and visual function.
Though solutions to overcome digital eye strain symptoms are varied, it can usually be resolved by making ‘eye friendly’ physical changes to the work environment and introducing management strategies to alleviate dry eyes, tired eyes and headaches in conjunction with attending regular eye examinations.
Most employers believe it is sufficient to signpost their employees to have an eye test with an optician. However, times have now changed.
During routine eye tests there is often insufficient time available to comprehensively investigate the rising complaints of digital eye strain symptoms. Also, the employee may not be sufficiently equipped to provide the necessary information to the optometrist to prescribe accurately. The advice received is often generic, verbal and can be forgotten.
DSE risk assessments don’t go far enough?
As such, there are growing concerns that routine eye tests no longer offer a complete solution for employers and their staff.
Whilst in-house occupational practitioners have historically been responsible for conducting DSE [display screen equipment] risk assessments, the practicalities of doing these remotely diminish.
Nonetheless, the law maintains that employers must continue to carry out their duty of care for staff. Under The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974, it’s made clear that it is the employer’s duty “to manage and reduce the risks which employees are exposed to when they carry out their work”.
More recently, in May 2020, the Health & Safety Executive updated its guidance, stating, “Employers have the same health and safety responsibilities for employees working from home as for any other employees. If you have staff working at home, you must still manage the risks to their health from Display Screen Equipment.”
Therefore, to ensure employers are fulfilling their duty of care, providing training for staff to self-help and avoid harm is essential. Investing in employees’ education and providing them with eye-gonomic and ergonomic solutions can mitigate occupational injuries (in other words ones that arise out of and in the course of your employment) and enhance performance.
In particular, DSE assessments can be carried out by employees in their own homes using online questionnaires to answer queries about their screen use and visual requirements. The results provide individuals with tailored, evidence based, self-help strategies as well as best practices to ensure their visual health is maintained.
Because of this, when outsourcing DSE assessments, workplace injuries can be minimised and even avoided at minimal costs. Since poor screen use and visual health can also be the source of other prolonged injuries such as musculoskeletal disorders, which account for over four million working days lost annually, ensuring that DSE assessments continue throughout remote working can reduce absenteeism and boost productivity too.
Digital eye strain is an emerging public health issue and should employers fail to address digital eye health alongside their ergonomic duty of care, they may be in for a bumpy ride.
Education is key to protect workforces but also themselves from personal injury claims and the detrimental impact of absenteeism. Though recent seismic shifts in working practices have presented employers with new challenges, the duty to ensure the safety of employees can and must be maintained.
Average British adult spends the equivalent of 34 YEARS of their life staring at screens – but only half of that time is “productive”, Daily Mail, May 2020, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-8307201/Average-British-adult-spend-equivalent-34-YEARS-looking-screens.html
Coles-Brennan C et al (2019). “Management of Digital Eye Strain”, Clin Exp Optom 2019; 102; pp.18-19. Available online at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/297974531
“Coronavision” eye warning, July 2020, The College of Optometrists, https://www.college-optometrists.org/the-college/media-hub/news-listing/coronavision-eye-warning.html
“DigitEYEzed: The Daily Impact of Digital Screens on the Eye Health of Americans”, The Vision Council, https://gunnars.fr/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/TVCDigitEYEzedReport2013.pdf
“Working Safely with Display Screen Equipment 6: Home working”, Health and Safety Executive, https://www.hse.gov.uk/toolbox/workers/home.htm
Mobile Working Guide, Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors
Varacallo M and Knoblauch D (2020). “Occupational Injuries and Workers’ Compensation Management Strategies” August, 2020, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470372/