Using computers and smartphones
Working with computers is a major contributor to the hundreds of thousands of people who develop bad backs, repetitive strain injury and stress each year. Smartphones, tablets and other internet-enabled devices can cause similar issues to desktop computers, forcing people to adopt awkward postures and repetitive movements. As anyone who has checked their work emails late at night will know, smartphones can leave us feeling as though we are “always on”, meaning that our work lives increasingly encroach on our personal lives.
These electronic devices are often collectively known as display screen equipment (DSE) or visual display units (VDU).
Whether you’re “hot desking” or working from home, your employer has the same obligations to manage the risk of DSE use as they would to people with a fixed workstation. Find out more about health and safety if you work from home.
Symptoms and conditions
The main health problems associated with using computers and other forms of DSE are musculoskeletal disorders of the hands, arms, back and neck. These aches and pains can be both short and long term, but in most cases cause a lot of avoidable pain and distress.
Using DSE can also cause other health problems, including headaches, stress and fatigue. Computers can also give you eyestrain, but there is no robust evidence that they can cause permanent damage to your eyesight. However, it may make people with pre-existing vision problems more aware of them. This, often in combination with poor working conditions, can give some users temporary visual fatigue or headaches.
None of the health problems are inevitable, and if employers comply with the law, the risks to users should be low.
A range of conditions or equipment associated with using computers can cause health problems if they are not addressed, including desks, chairs, computer accessories such as a keyboard or mouse, noise in the working environment, lighting and temperature. How the user’s job is designed can also affect people’s health – things like whether people can control the pace of their work or vary their tasks to minimise extended periods sat in front of the computer.
Many of these issues are considered to be ergonomic. The HSE says that ergonomics is “a science concerned with the ‘fit’ between people and their work … Ergonomics aims to make sure that tasks, equipment, information and the environment fit each worker”. Your workstation and your role should be designed to fit around you, not the other way around. If it isn’t, it can cause MSDs and other health problems.
What your employer should do
Employers that require staff to use computers and smartphone must comply with the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992, commonly called the DSE Regulations. Smartphone technology may have been in its infancy when these regulations were introduced, but they cover most equipment that has a screen – including desktop computers and portable devices, such as laptops, smartphones and tablets – in just about all environments.
The DSE Regulations protect workers by requiring employers to reduce the health risks of DSE work. The regulations place a duty on employers to carry out an analysis and assessment of computer users’ workstations and their working environment, to identify hazards such as those listed above. Any risks to users’ health that are discovered during this assessment should be reduced as far as possible. Information provided by employees is an essential part of this assessment.
Assessments are often carried out using a checklist, either carried out by an assessor or by the user themselves. Employees are often the best placed to know the risks they face, but they need to have had suitable training on how to carry assessments out. Good training should also consider how to set up your workstation and how to adopt good posture – there’s some information about this below.
Employers are only required to do this for people who work with DSE for continuous or near-continuous spells of an hour or more, more or less daily.
The assessment should consider issues including the desk, the chair, computer accessories such as a keyboard or mouse, noise in the working environment, lighting and temperature. It should also consider how the user’s job is designed, such as whether they can control the pace of their work or vary their tasks to minimise extended periods sat in front of the computer.
Laptops and other portable devices present their own challenges – they can cause users to adopt awkward postures, which present particular MSD risks. The nature of the device should be considered when carrying out the assessment. It may be that a laptop docking station should be used, or that the user is provided with an external mouse and keyboard.
Employers are required to provide DSE users with regular eye and eyesight tests – an in-depth examination of vision acuity and eye health. Simple vision screening tests do not meet the requirements of the regulations.
DSE users must be provided with further tests at regular intervals – for most people, optometrists advise to have an eye test every two years, but it's best to attend earlier if any problems occur or if advised to by your optometrist.
Employers must meet the cost of the eye and eyesight test. If the optometrist recommends that the user wear glasses for DSE work, then the employer needs to pay for a pair that is adequate for the user’s work.
What you can do
- Report any problems or symptoms you experience to your line manager. Tell your health and safety rep, if there is one.
- Follow the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes you spend using a computer screen, try to look away at something that is 20 feet away from you for 20 seconds. This helps the muscles in your eyes to relax.
- Keep blinking! When you look at a monitor for an extended period, the rate at which you blink tends to decrease, which can give you dry eyes.
- Adopt good posture and seating position. Generally speaking, your eyes should be the same height as the top of the monitor; your feet should be flat on the floor; your hips should be slightly higher than your knees; your arms should be horizontal to the keyboard; and you should try to sit up straight.
- If possible, arrange the desk and screen to avoid glare or bright reflections.