Spotlight on: desk health

Stuck at your desk all day, glued to your computer screen? For most employees working in a fast-paced, pressurised environment, this is a reality, and it is likely most of us will at some point suffer unnecessary headaches, eye fatigue or bad backs as a result of poor desk habits.

If you went on a health and safety check and induction process when you first joined your company, you may well be aware of your rights to take frequent breaks. You may also have been given instructions by your health and safety officer to carry out an MOT of your desk area: to check that your computer is at the right height in relation to your eye level and that the mouse is placed appropriately to reduce the risk of repetitive strain injury (RSI) and eye fatigue.

Peer pressure

But how many of you actually took any notice and followed through with these procedures?

A survey of 1,500 UK office workers from market research firm Tickbox.net, carried out on behalf of visual display provider ViewSonic, found that 46% of respondents admitted to spending six or more hours in front of their computer screens. Some 55% of 16- to 24-year-old employees agreed that they were unable to schedule frequent breaks due to excessive workloads or peer/management pressure.

“We are in danger of creating a workforce culture plagued by chronic ill-health,” warns Mel Taylor, vice-president and director of European marketing for ViewSonic. She advises employers to promote better desktop ergonomics and urges employees to implement better working practices.

The most worrying statistic from the survey suggests that more than two-thirds of employees would consider suing their employer over health issues. Taylor argues: “Employers may be opening themselves up to serious legal liabilities in the future.”

To avoid potential work-related desk injuries, such as neck strain and eye fatigue, Taylor advises employees to adjust their monitors to approximately 10cm below eye level, and a minimum of 64cm away from the eyes. The screen should also be tilted away slightly at the top to accommodate the natural viewing plane of the eye.

Eye fatigue

Eye fatigue is a common problem, often caused by staring at the screen for extended periods of time.

“Staff should adopt the habit of taking a mini ergo-break every 15 minutes or so – just a quick stretch is all that’s needed,” adds Taylor.

The responsibility lies squarely with the employer to provide a safe working environment for users and inform them of measures they should take to protect themselves from injury.

Worryingly, the survey revealed that almost half of workers (47%) say they have been offered no advice on the best desktop layout or ergonomics best practice in the past 12 months.

Be aware that employers are obliged by law to carry out workstation checks if employees request one. “Ergonomic issues create huge problems that must not be swept under the carpet,” says Taylor.

“Education at both individual and corporate level is urgently required.”

RSI facts

TUC figures claim that six people lose their job every day through RSI. If identified early enough, it is reversible.

The TUC has estimated RSI costs British industry more than £1bn a year.

The Display Screen Equipment Regulations 1992, amended in 2002, lay down the following areas of responsibility:

  • All computers must fit a minimum specification for healthy use.
  • All workstations must be assessed for risk.
  • Computer equipment must be fit for the job to avoid strains and discomfort.
  • All users must be made to take regular breaks from computer work.
  • Eye tests and special glasses must be provided if requested.
  • Training on computer safety must be provided to all computer users.
  • Users must be given relevant information relating to their health and safety.

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