Display screen equipment (VDUs)

Display screen equipment (most commonly VDUs, but also including such things as CCTV monitors and microfiche readers) can cause difficulties in several areas:

These include:

  • Musculoskeletal injury: damage to upper limbs, back, shoulders etc, resulting from poor equipment, poor posture, incorrect work routines.
  • Visual fatigue: although there is no accepted evidence of VDU usage actually causing damage to eyesight, it can make small visual problems more noticeable and prolonged usage can cause tired or dry eyes, headaches etc. Poor lighting conditions, including siting issues, can also affect eyesight and cause visual fatigue.
  • Mental overload: the demanding nature of VDU work, or a lack of discretion caused by work with VDUs can place excessive pressure on workers.
  • Fire: poorly maintained equipment, lack of work space causing papers to be stored too close to heat vents, electrical malfunctions, mean VDUs can be a fire risk.
  • Trip hazards resulting from poor cable management.

Some of these risks can be managed effectively with ease, but others require greater planning and will need safety reps to look more deeply into management practices.

The 1992 Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations offer a legal framework to control many of the risks identified above, and the general risk assessments required by other legislation should address any outstanding issues.

Trip hazards

Trips (and slips) cause an immense amount of pain to workers every year - they are one of the main causes of injuries that keep workers off work for over 3 days.

In terms of VDUs it is often poor planning of the workplace, combined with equally poor planning of VDU installation, which results in cables running across passageways to reach network or electrical outlets.

Reps have a legal right to be consulted over such things as VDU installations and plans for workplace moves and/or refurbishments and you should use this opportunity to ensure that location of outlet points for computer services have been properly planned to avoid the need to trail cables across areas where people will walk.

Also, these routes are sometimes taken for cabling simply because the installers do not have a long enough cable to lay it by a safer route. This point should also be borne in mind in planning such works.

Covering cables, either with tape or with purpose designed rubber/plastic conduits is not really an acceptable alternative to correct positioning of service outlets, though it may be necessary where no realistic alternative exists and is certainly better than leaving a loose cable lying across a floor.

Looking for trip hazards should be included as part of the quarterly safety rep inspection of the workplace.

Fire hazard

Most VDU units will have recommended cleaning and maintenance schedules specified by the manufacturer. Systems need to be put in place to ensure that these are complied with.

Periodic electrical testing will assist in ensuring that developing electrical problems are identified and rectified at the earliest opportunity.

Frequency of recommended testing will depend on the location, use and frequency of movement of the equipment. HSE produce a useful guide to 'portable appliance testing', which outlines the recommended routines for a variety of workplace equipment.

A further point to consider in relation to fire risk is the ease with which a VDU can be isolated from the electricity supply.

Some workplaces have a separate supply system for all VDUs, which has its own easily accessible isolation switch - this means that in the event of an electrical fire, all VDUs can be easily isolated.

In other workplaces, however, such systems are not in place and the supply can only be controlled by the main fuse box or the plug into which the VDU is connected. This has implications for fire safety, especially on the choice of suitable fire fighting equipment.

Musculoskeletal problems

These can be split between upper limb disorders and back problems.

Back problems associated with DSE work most frequently arise because of a combination of poor work practices and inadequate (or incorrectly adjusted) seating.

Upper limb disorders can result from poor posture and/or equipment set-up, incorrect work organisation, work overload, poorly designed software requiring too much use of a mouse etc.

There is a separate PCS fact sheet on RSI issues and others covering back pain.

The first key control for all musculoskeletal risks is training: all staff working with DSE should be trained to understand:

  • The importance of proper ergonomic set-up;
  • How to achieve a proper ergonomic set-up including how adjustment mechanisms for items such as chairs operate correctly;
  • The importance of following arrangements for breaks/changes of activity;
  • What to do to report difficulties with equipment or early stage symptoms of pain;
  • The key aspects of the DSE regulations, including such things as arrangements for eyesight testing;
  • Training should be repeated after a suitable interval, to ensure that staff retain the information and skills.

Once proper training systems are in place, the next key control measure is workstation analysis - or risk assessment.

Each workstation must be assessed to identify risk factors and to plan actions to reduce those risks to the lowest possible level.

Some employers rely heavily on workstation users completing a self-assessment questionnaire as the main part of workstation analysis.

Whilst there is nothing in law to prevent this, (indeed, HSE guidance says that the inclusion of users' views is an essential part of the process of assessment, as is the involvement of safety reps) it is vital that employees are properly trained before the questionnaire is completed and that at least a representative sample of those questionnaires indicating no problems should be checked by a trained workstation assessor.

It is preferable for all workstations to receive a follow-up visit from an assessor.

Workstation checks should be repeated if any changes occur and regularly reassessed to ensure that information is up to date.

Where a workstation may be used by more than one person, a separate analysis is required for each worker who uses the workstation.

In such 'hot desking' situations, particular attention needs to be paid to any equipment provided for the needs of an individual member of staff - for example, how does someone who has a non-standard chair ensure that they have access to it, regardless of which workstation they may be using?

Work routine/ breaks

The other key part of controlling musculoskeletal risks is work routine and organisation.

The DSE Regulations place a legal duty on employers to ensure that workers' daily work is organised so as to break up long periods of VDU work.

This is best done by ensuring that there is a mix of VDU and non-VDU work, but the regulations realise that this is not always possible and in such circumstances it requires physical breaks from screen-based work.

There is a lot of guidance about how and when such breaks should be taken: the key issues are that employees should have some discretion over when to take a break, that more frequent shorter breaks are preferable to longer, less frequent ones and that breaks/changes of activity, whether part of other duties or a formal break, should allow the worker to leave the workstation, to stand up, move around and change posture and should avoid duties that utilise the same sort of postures and muscle groups as used for VDU work.

Care is needed to ensure that breaks are not too short to allow adequate recovery time - which can occur when employers rely on what are termed 'micro-breaks': very short breaks from using a keyboard which can occur as part of daily work routine, but which don't allow for posture change or movement away from the workstation.

Safety reps should ensure that these issues are being properly addressed This could be done as part of quarterly inspections, or as a separate exercise.

Eyes and eyesight

Although medical evidence does not support any idea that VDU usage can damage eyesight, there are several issues that can result in visual fatigue or other eye and eyesight problems. For example:

  • If lighting condition are inadequate, including causing glare and/or reflected images in the screen;
  • Prolonged screen use, without adequate breaks;
  • Dry eyes, where humidity levels are low. This can be a particular problem for wearers of contact lenses;
  • The visually demanding nature of intense screen work can also highlight problems arising from uncorrected vision defects that might otherwise pass unnoticed.

To guard against this, the DSE regulations prescribe that every user of DSE equipment should be entitled to an eye/eyesight test BEFORE they start DSE work and at regular intervals thereafter. The cost of the eye test should be borne by the employer.

'Regular' is not defined in the regulations and most employers rely on the optician's recommended re-test interval.

Additional tests before a scheduled retest can be obtained, at the employer's expense, if visual difficulties occur that can reasonably be considered to be caused by the DSE work.

Where an eyesight test reveals the need for 'special corrective appliances' to correct vision defects for DSE usage, the employer is liable for the cost of a basic corrective appliance.

For further information on this entitlement, speak to the Equality, Health and Safety Department at PCS HQ.

Lighting and DSE

It is vital that lighting is correct to avoid glare, reflections and over- or under-lit working environments. Failure to do so can cause headaches and visual fatigue. It can also be a source of musculoskeletal problems, if workers have to adopt incorrect postures to see round screen reflections.

The Schedule of Minimum Standards for workstations, part of the DSE regulations, has detailed requirements on provision of adequate lighting, prevention of glare, reflections and provision of blinds or other means of screening workstations from daylight/sunlight from windows.

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