The use of display screen equipment (DSE) or visual display units (VDU) is associated with a variety of health problems including pains in the neck, arms, elbows, wrists, hands and fingers, back ache, fatigue and stress, long and short term eye strain and headaches. In a survey undertaken by the Eyecare Trust as many as 63% of workers claimed that their health had at some time in some way been affected by their work with computers.

When these health issues are properly considered and managed the use of computers will not lead to long term health issues. Problems that arise during routine work activities can normally be resolved by adjustment of seating, the workstation, display screen or keyboard and instructing the employees about the correct posture to adopt when using a computer. A small number of people who develop or have existing upper limb disorders, which may not be as a result of work, may sometimes require special arrangements.

Since computers and related equipment are designed and built to recognised standards the key to preventing health related issues is how they are set up and used. When a computer workstation is properly set:
• the user’s elbows will be level with the keyboard
• their feet will be flat to the floor and their knees will be at a minimum angle of 90o or they will have been provided with a footrest
• their chair will be adjusted to support their back
• the screen will be directly in front of them at an arm’s distance and the top of the screen will be level with the user’s eyes
• documents being used in the course of computer work will be supported in a holder at the same height as the screen and on the side of the user’s dominant eye
• the desk will not be cluttered; there will be space in front of the keyboard for arms and wrists to rest on the desktop
• items in frequent use such as the telephone, staplers, pens, reference materials will be within easy reach.

Using a computer can exacerbate vision defects and if not set up correctly will lead to eye strain. When employees ask for an eye test employers are obliged to arrange and pay for computer specific eye tests. They are also required to pay for glasses that are required for work at a computer; but they only have to provide basic lenses and frames. Where an employee wants ‘designer’ frames they will have to pay the balance of the costs.

If the nature of the work requires continuous use of the computer and sight of the display screen the user will need to take regular breaks from computer work to avoid eye strain. The recommendation is that a 10 minute spell of other work should be undertaken every hour.

Laptop users are at greatest potential risk of health problems. This is because they are often used in places where it is not always possible to set up the workstation to meet the standards listed above. The screens are also smaller and the display may be harder to see and read. Laptops should only be supplied and used where there is a real need and then for short periods of time only. When in use at a base or home location laptop users will ideally have access to a docking station so that the user can work at a normal sized keyboard and display screen.

Provided workstations are set up correctly and workers have been trained and instructed to maintain the correct set up and adopt the correct posture when using a computer, health problems should only arise in exceptional cases. In these cases suitably trained staff or independent advisors will need to assess the individual case and offer solutions.

If you require any further advice on the safe use of computers in the workplace, do not hesitate to contact our 24 Hour Advice Service on
0844 892 2772.