With the increased reliance on digital technologies, screens, devices and computers, many employees work with display screen equipment (DSE) for prolonged hours each day, which can result in computer health and safety risks such as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and eye strain.
Employers must ensure that their computer health and safety policies and arrangements lead to their employees being safe, healthy, productive, and free from harm.
Read our guide on how to work safely with DSE.
What are the health and safety risks of using computers?
Upper and lower back aches
One of the most common computer health and safety concerns is acute or chronic backache. Upper and lower backache, pain and discomfort often derives from:
Since employees are potentially sitting in the same position for long periods, the muscles and tendons in the back can become tense, which results in localised or referred pain and discomfort in the back, neck and shoulders.
Improper ergonomic assembly
If a chair, desk, or computer screen is too high or too low for the worker, it can contribute to back pain as the user adapts their posture to the workstation. Moreover, if a computer screen is incorrectly positioned, a person can experience neck and upper back tension from tilting their head.
Additionally, an office chair without sufficient lumbar support can lead to prolonged slouching, which can compress the back muscles.
To remedy these problems, encourage employees to:
- Ensure their seat height is correct and low back is supported. Their shoulders should be relaxed and aligned with their hips, with their feet flat on the floor or on a footrest. The determent here is the desk height.
- Ensure employees take regular breaks from their workstation or tasks to prevent tension in muscles.
- Encourage employees to do light stretches and movement throughout the day.
Upper Limb Disorders (ULDs) and Repetitive strain injury (RSI)
DSE workers potentially carry out a number of repetitive motions and maintain awkward postures while typing, mousing and interacting with DSE. This could potentially cause tension in the muscles and tendons in the hands, wrists and arms.
Tenosynovitis is a condition which describes the inflammation of the fluid-filled synovium within the tendon sheath. It results in symptoms such as pain and swelling in the affect area of the upper limbs.
Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) is a type of RSI that occurs when the nerves in the wrist become compressed or squeezed due to inflammation in the surrounding tissue. It can also occur without any workplace factors and depends on the individual. CTS causes various symptoms in the hands and fingers, including:
Prolonged or frequent engagement in repetitive DSE activities without sufficient breaks or the application of good ergonomic principles can increase the likelihood of RSI and CTS. Diagnosis is often complex, and it can be difficult to identify the cause(s), but steps can be taken to reduce the risk of developing RSI.
To prevent RSI, ensure employees receive DSE training and know why it is important to report symptoms to their manager. Make sure a workstation DSE assessment has been completed and in general their keyboard is directly in front of them, their hands and wrists are supported. Their wrists should be straight, not be flexed or bent, with the mouse in a comfortable position. Encourage employees to do exercises that stretch their wrists and fingers occasionally to release tension.
Eyestrain and headaches
Almost 40% of DSE workers report having tired eyes after screen use for at least half of the time during use, with 30% saying they experience eye strain. This could be due to computer vision syndrome, a common computer health and safety issue.
Computer vision syndrome happens when the eye muscles get tired from staring at a screen for a long time, potentially leading to:
- Dry eyes.
- Strained eyes.
- Trouble concentrating.
- Blurred vision.
To avoid computer vision syndrome and other forms of eye strain, ensure employees have had their eyes tested recently for DSE work and wear appropriate glasses if necessary. If employees are unsure whether they need to wear glasses, encourage them to get their eyes checked by opticians.
Employers are legally obligated to pay for eye tests — which should be made clear to all DSE workers as soon as they join your organisation and as part of the ongoing computer health and safety management programme.
What is the current computer health and safety legislation and guidance?
The Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 and Guidance are in place to protect the health, safety, and well-being of employees whose work mostly involves working with DSE, including:
- Computer screens.
- Mobile devices such as tablets.
- TV screens.
The purpose of these regulations is to ensure that employers do what they can to protect employees’ health and safety when using DSE, including:
- Conducting regular workstation assessments to identify any risks to employees’ health and safety related to DSE use.
- Providing suitable workstations that are properly adjusted and set up.
- Implementing regular breaks or schedule changes.
- Offering and paying for eye tests to employees who use DSE.
- Providing up-to-date training to employees on the proper use of DSE and how to mitigate the risks.
What are an employer’s responsibilities?
Employees are legally obligated to conduct thorough risk assessments, examining various factors such as:
Assess the workstation set-up to check that the chair, screens, and desk are at a suitable level and are easily adjustable to meet the employee’s needs.
Ensure the workplace is well-lit to allow employees to perform their tasks comfortably and safely, allowing for plenty of natural light.
Additionally, employers should check:
- The quality and condition of the display screen, including checking that the screen is at the correct size to do the required tasks.
- That there is no flickering glare from artificial lights or computer screens.
- The clarity of the texts and images on screens is readable.
Provide comfortable, stable, adjustable ergonomic chairs for all employees who work at desks. Good ergonomic chairs should be provided, including armrests where necessary and effective lumbar support.
Ensure that regular breaks away from intense DSE work are implemented or changes in activity are provided to allow workers to maintain healthy circulation, reduce stress and mitigate the potential cause of eye strain or discomfort.
Provide adequate training and information so employees understand how to work with DSE safely. Emphasise the importance of maintaining good ergonomic practices.
Provide appropriate equipment
Provide equipment to meet the needs of an employee identified in their workstation risk assessment. Here are examples of equipment that can help employees to work comfortably, safely, and efficiently:
- Wrist rests.
- Additional lighting.
- Neck and back support.
It’s essential that employers conduct regular risk assessments, particularly if new personnel join or there have been changes in workplace practices and equipment.
Our DSE Workstation Assessment + tool helps employers to ensure compliance with up-to-date computer health and safety requirements.
What are employees’ responsibilities?
Although employers must provide guidance for effective health and safety when using a computer, employees must take some responsibility for their occupational health, by:
- Familiarising themselves with up-to-date workplace policies and procedures related to computer health and safety, and follow the guidelines implemented by management, which encompasses protocols for equipment setup and usage.
- Participating in training programmes provided by their employer. This may mean use of IOSH approved eLearning or attending in-person or educational sessions to ensure they understand appropriate ergonomic practices. Our DSE training is created by skilled ergonomists and is specifically designed for employees who rely on the use of DSE. The in-depth training covers relevant computer health and safety protocols and adheres to the regulations set by The Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992.
- Using equipment supplied by their employers and ensuring they ask for additional resources if they need them.
- Making sure they take regular breaks from prolonged DSE, to encourage blood circulation, release muscular tension and combat lethargy.
- Promptly reporting pain or discomfort while using the workstation or DSE.
Want to make sure your DSE set up is fit for purpose? Our friendly, expert team are on hand to help your organisation meet your display screen equipment needs.