Schools and colleges have adopted laptops and tablet devices with enthusiasm. Jon Abbott says they now need to address the ergonomic risks to young users’ bodies

Having watched the speed with which our school systems have adopted technology, I think that in ten years or less we will be lamenting the plight of many young workers. We will be dealing with the impact of unintended consequences and to paraphrase the Scottish poet Robert Burns, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry”.

According to The British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) there were 117,000 tablets in use in primary schools at the end of 2013 (an increase from 50,000 in 2012) and 141,000 tablets in use in secondary schools (up from 96,000 in 2012). By the end of 2015 this is expected to increase to 242,000 in primary schools and 370,000 in secondary schools. These figures relate to UK schools only.

And the use of tablets will become increasingly embedded into our education system. BESA’s research shows that 57 per cent of primary and 75 per cent of secondary schools plan to provide a tablet for each pupil by the end of 2020.

Technology is transforming education. Pupils have access to information in a speedier and more informative way. Our future workforce is learning to work and collate information in a manner that is more representative of our modern workplaces. It is essential this continues.

But suppose each pupil uses their tablet (or laptop) for two-and-a-half hours each day in school. Let us also assume they are completing an hour of homework each evening on these same devices. Now compare a pupil with a typical employee. What obligations would you have to an employee using technology for three-and-a-half hours each day?

In regulated countries we would be obliged to educate and assess each user for risk. In non-regulated countries we would probably apply the same techniques to avoid negatively impacting our insurance. In both cases we would be looking for indicators that might lead to soft tissue injuries.

Now think about this. Our younger generations are using technology for the same (if not more) hours per day than our typical employee yet there is absolutely no obligation to manage the risks these devices pose. And the risk is greater; our young people are adopting poor postures for many hours each day while their bones are still developing.

What does this mean for you?

My assertion is that your younger employees will be exhibiting established injuries and, potentially, skeletal abnormalities as they join your workplace. In terms of DSE management this makes your role considerably more difficult. Although injuries may not be caused by your workplace you will still be managing discomfort and the resulting loss of productivity.

And what about the thing we all strive to achieve – positive behaviours? Personally I believe that behaviours that developed throughout an entire school career will be impossible for you to change. I think the best we will be able to do is to embrace and learn to manage poor postures because your future employees will not have the muscle strength to support a traditionally good posture; it is likely that an abnormally developed skeletal system will prevent positive postures.

What’s the evidence?

The past few years have seen a significant increase in the number of children showing signs of musculoskeletal disorder with more than 72 per cent of primary school children suffering back or neck pain in the last 12 months. An increasing number of children are requiring NHS treatment and taking medication. Sixty-four per cent of secondary school children have suffered problems over a similar period and almost 90 per cent of the children have not reported their pain to anyone.

The results appear in a questionnaire-based study commissioned by Abertawe [Swansea] Bro Morgannwg University (ABMU) Health board and was conducted by Helena Webb, a leading paediatric physiotherapist. In the study 204 children from the ages of 7-18 were questioned in an in-depth survey about their back care. The research was carried out after the ABMU reported that the number of children receiving treatment for back and neck pain had doubled over six months. The percentage of paediatric referrals to physiotherapy for back/neck pain increased from 2.1 per cent in September 2011 to 4.5 per cent in March 2012.

What’s being done?

Sadly, very little. There are a number of organisations that are working hard to improve postures amongst young people. The Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors (IEHF) and the British Chiropractors Association (BCA) have some great resources.

Cardinus, working in partnership with the Health & Safety Laboratory, have developed a range of free-to-use resources for schools, colleges and universities around the world. These can be found at www.ergonomics4kids.com.

Having spent so much time researching the impact of technologies on young bodies I am keen to see accountability for the safe use of technology in our education system. While I don’t believe regulation is the answer, I do want to see schools obligated to teach young people how to use technology safety. After all, it is in their interests, we know employees who suffer from discomfort are not so productive; the same is likely for those in education.

So, having launched Healthy Working MOVE and a variety of free-to-use resources, Cardinus and its partners worked to engage with schools. Some authorities, such as Derbyshire County Council, have been especially responsive. OFSTED and the Department for Education stand out as being completely unsupportive. So, if our authorities are not going to support positive programs to help our young people (especially when we would not get away with the same with the working population) we need to take it on ourselves to change attitudes.

Best-laid schemes don’t have to go awry. We know that technology provides considerable academic benefits, but as experts we also know we are storing up long-term health issues among our young people. Our advantage is our knowledge and we need to spread the word to those who simply do not understand the risks.

We must all use our professional influence to reach out to schools, scouting, guiding and other groups and encourage them to take ergonomics seriously. Without any authoritarian support we need a revolutionary approach if we want to recruit young employees without pre-existing ergonomic injuries.

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