With regulations falling behind the changes in technology and neglecting the needs of children and students, the time has come for industry and education to take the initiative

THE Display Screen Equipment (DSE) regulations lay out a pathway that is designed to minimise health risks associated with using computers. If we follow DSE guidance we should be assured, that our organisations and our people are protected and able to work more healthily and efficiently.

But much of this guidance is no longer relevant for modern workplaces. We know people are working in areas with soft seating, we know technologies do not allow for the stereotypical “safe” ergonomics postures and therefore standard training under the DSE regulations cannot work. It falls to the general Health and Safety at Work act to ensure that the training is suitable to the risk factors that affect that individual.

The Health and Safety (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2002 addressed early changes in the nature of work as well as recognising the increased capability and reduced dimensions of portable computing. Since 2002, key changes impacting workplace ergonomics and well-being include:

  • The growth of open-plan offices and hot desking
  • The move to smart working, including mobile, home and flexible working
  • Invention and market penetration of tablets
  • Continuing evolution of smartphones to provide many tablet or computer functions
  • Widespread availability of 4G and fast wi-fi
  • Bring Your Own Devices (BYOD) policies enabling employees to choose what operating system and appliances they work on
  • Exponential advance of apps handling tasks that were previously only possible on computers.
    A plethora of different work environments for the 4Cs (collaboration, communication, contemplation and concentration), resulting in an even larger variety of working postures
  • Widespread publicity about the potential dangers of prolonged sitting and the resultant growing demand for sit-stand desks
  • Rapid dissemination of ideas and increasing interest in health and well-being as a key consideration in workplace productivity

In 2012, a third of workers in the USA and Europe spent a significant proportion of their working week both located outside the office and working outside ‘normal’ working hours. Fifty-eight per cent of UK workers think that the traditional fixed workstation office will have disappeared altogether by 2020.

Time to look beyond the regulations

A recent survey of 132 tablet users showed that only 21%were provided with tablets by their company but 82% carry out at least some work-related tablet-based activities. Furthermore, almost a third (31%) had experienced musculoskeletal problems that they attributed to tablet use.

Employees will migrate to the easiest method of achieving a task and the instant access and ease of use implicit in tablet design make them tempting tools for many activities, especially email and scheduling. However, the design of these devices and the ways of interacting with them are not suited to prolonged use. The survey data clearly shows what we already suspected, namely that employers must review their health and safety policies and guidance on the assumption that handheld devices are being used. They can no longer ignore the use of tablets just because they do not issue them as company property.

Many organisations have recognised and embraced this reality by introducing BYOD policies but, in doing so, it is most common to concentrate on the security, software compatibility and data integration issues rather than ergonomics, posture and well-being. We must assume, therefore, that the use of handheld devices is more widespread within business than corporate policies indicate, but how do we manage this situation to optimise employee posture and productivity?

When the original DSE Regulations appeared in 1992, it was possible to gain a good insight into a user’s posture without them even being present. The screen height and chair set-up or the relative positions of the monitor and telephone provided a setting and context for the user’s work environment even when nobody was at the desk. It was almost possible to complete a workstation assessment without the user even being there, as long as you knew their height, a little about what they did and whether they were left- or right-handed.

 DSE regulations and laptop use

 

With the widespread introduction of laptops, this was no longer the case but docking stations, separate mice and other items left on the desk provide tell-tale indications of the overall setup. These clues vanish with smartphones and tablets. Apart from the ubiquitous charger cable, there is no workplace indication of how a device is used – or even which device is being used.

Early posture guides dating from the late-1990s covered all the key indicators of good and bad posture when using a desktop or laptop computer. Over the years, we have replaced CRT monitors with flat screens, extended the laptop guidance, introduced mini keyboards (with standard key spacing but without the numeric keypad) and, most recently, introduced information for sit-stand desk use. In all that time, the guiding principles are unchanged and the content has simply evolved rather than undergoing any dramatic change.

Tablets and smartphones present very different challenges for user guidance and training. There is no obvious starting point since you cannot presume the existence of a desk or an office chair. More than that, the user may not even be stationary, adding a very different safety issue.

More recent guides address the physical demands of different postures and activities. Rather than creating a traditional ‘start at the top and read down’ document like the guidance for laptop and desktop computer users, it is more appropriate to provide tips and suggestions relating to different parts of the body. The reader identifies which parts of the advice pertain directly to his/her own experience.

Since tablets and smartphones are self-contained entities, the ‘desk, chair and immediate work environment’ for an individual may change several times each day. If employers are to ‘perform a suitable and sufficient analysis of those workstations’ (Regulation 2), should they consider the kitchen, train, coffee shop, reception, hot-desk, meeting room, breakout area, canteen, touchdown zone, bus shelter, client office, tube, restaurant, bar, lounge and bedroom that so many of us use in our daily lives? Of course, these are not all used every day and many of these locations will involve only a couple of minutes of texting or email but these periods are cumulative and many of the postures will be poor.

It is clearly not possible to apply the old risk assessment procedures to every situation but the reality is that handheld technology is being used regularly and frequently in many of these environments.

Office design guidelines need to be re-invigorated with threads of well-being to ensure not just higher retention and productivity, but high levels of wellness whatever the workplace setting. A number of influencing factors need to be taken into account for both employee and employer alongside the DSE regulations to achieve more effective smartworking spaces for the technology-equipped nomadic worker.

Our studies expose the need for further research into both the long-term physical and psychological effects of mobile technology, changing work practices and the need for innovative ways of affecting change for both individuals and companies interested in improving health and productivity at work.

The DSE regulations are presenting a message that is outdated and no longer reflective of the workplace. In the absence of anything else they still have a place, but we need to be creative and remember the spirit of the regulations: to prevent injury. If we can subscribe to this message and deliver a safety programme designed for young people using social media and other mechanisms we may have a chance.

We need to embrace awkward postures and give people an informed choice. Telling people how to sit is different to explaining the impact on the body if they choose different postures. We have all heard the mantra “the next posture is the best posture” but does our training reflect this or does it follow the DSE regulations?

Take a walk around any workplace and see how people really sit and observe how often they change posture. Unconsciously, they will fidget when their bodies tell them enough-is-enough.
DSE training might have been completed but are the moral and financial arguments lost if employees are not comfortable? Productivity increases of up to 17 per cent can be achieved by helping people to be comfortable.

Mental and physical health and well-being are crucial to employee productivity and it is logical that a positive and dynamic approach to creating an empowered, engaged and healthy workforce will be more effective than the rather more negative approach of risk assessment and management. Whilst risks must be identified and eliminated or mitigated, the more holistic process is to ensure that individuals understand them, understand how to manage them and, more importantly, understand how to manage themselves.

Without doubt the world of work is changing. Our employees are changing too. Now is the time to consider the workplace modifications that are needed to support a generation of young people who will be joining you with injuries and behaviours that have developed through their school years. This is a big problem, it will be costly to GB PLC and there is little foresight to address it.

This article was written by Jim Taylour of the Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors, and Guy Osmond, of Osmond Ergonomics. Click the links to visit their LinkedIn profiles.

The article featured in the Summer 2016 issue of Cardinus Connect, our magazine for risk professionals. Download your free copy here.

We provide the world’s leading DSE risk assessment software, Healthy Working. For more information, or to request your free demo, click on the link.

 

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