Time to shift focus Display Screen Equipment rules

jon abbott

Jon Abbott

Jon Abbott looks at 20 years of Display Screen Equipment Regulations. He considers what has been achieved and what needs to be done next

FOR 20 years now I have heard ergonomists talk about how brave the UK is to have implemented the Display Screen Equipment Regulations. These people feel that a regulatory framework will provide the support and finances needed to develop and implement a truly proactive ergonomics programme. When I am party to these conversations my contribution is always the same: “Be careful what you wish for.”

It’s true that the DSE Regulations have done a great deal of good. We have a greater awareness of ergonomics issues and most people will now understand that most discomfort caused from poor posture can be fixed.

Ergonomics also sells. Manufacturers of everything from vacuum cleaners to vehicles will mention ergonomic design and function somewhere in their sales literature. Just about every hotel offers an ergonomically designed working area (although who they’re actually designed for, I’m not so sure).

Why, then, my cautionary tone? Well, the difficulty comes from the fact that a regulatory framework has given us an easy opt-out. Any company can become compliant with the DSE Regulations by delivering a box-ticking programme that adheres to the letter of the law. What we really need is for more people to be working towards the spirit of the regulations.

We know that static postures lead to discomfort; we know that discomfort leads to pain and, without help, pain leads to injury. While many of us focus exclusively on injuries and sickness absence, the value of prevention is rarely mentioned. Let’s focus our safety efforts on achieving outcomes rather than ticking boxes. Ergonomics can help us to do this better, never more so than in our modern service-led economy.

Thankfully, the Health and Safety Executive seems to have finally woken up to the notion that safety is a saleable asset. If we can dispel the health and safety myths that have plagued us for so long, we can position safety as a tool to increase productivity, improve morale and, most importantly, add shareholder value.

Research undertaken by the Centre for Health Research and Rural Advocacy at Geiser Heath Systems measured the impact of impaired work performance based on how often 28,902 working adults experienced discomfort. The results were astonishing.

Workers who experienced headaches had an average loss of productive time of 3.5 hours per week, back pain sufferers lost 5.2 hours per week and lost productive time from other common conditions was 5.5 hours per week. It is recorded that the majority of this lost time was not work absence but reduced performance.

So, if we have one employee suffering from headaches we can lose 161 hours of lost productive time a year. Using a salary base of £30,000 per year with on-costs of £15,000 this equates to a loss of £4,025 from just one person. Surely this elevates DSE risk management from a “want to do” topic to an absolute “must do”.

But regulations don’t just help us to opt out of delivering a meaningful programme. They can even be a barrier to it. We all know that stress significantly increases the likelihood and severity of ergonomics injuries. Despite this, how many organisations integrate stress and ergonomics programmes? Very few.

Even more concerning is the issue of technological advances. The DSE Regulations, as good as they are, are now failing to keep abreast of the very technology we need help to use. Tablets, smartphones and other devices are everywhere. So are the injuries associated with them. As yet, very few products are available to support the use of tablets – never mind the DSE Regulations catching up – and meanwhile we are all starting to hurt a little more.

Essa Academy in Bolton has issued all pupils with tablet computers to undertake their schoolwork. Pupils will be using their tablets for up to eight hours each day and using them to complete their homework. I don’t know, but I hope some consideration has been given to how pupils use their devices and to ensure they take regular breaks. Tablets will undoubtedly improve productivity and positively impact grades but we do not want discomfort and injury to be part of the price. I know lawyers who are already looking at the issue with interest.

The approach to display screen equipment health and safety needs to shift focus. It must emphasise the benefits of good practice and continue to capitalise on the sexiness of good ergonomics to promote the use of well designed equipment. It also needs to move closer to the speed of technological development. Now that’s a big challenge but let’s address the impact of new devices before the potential risks become a painful reality.

I suppose I am in favour of the DSE Regulations after working with them for 20 years. But I would be much more in favour if we saw more good news stories coming from the powers-that-be. Let’s wave the flag for those companies who have a genuine passion for keeping people safe and well. Let’s celebrate their increased profits as they improve productivity in a positive way. Let’s get behind the spirit of those pioneering regulations to promote an attitude to health at work that’s even more relevant to the 21st century.


Jon Abbott is managing director – ergonomics and safety at Cardinus Risk Management Limited. He can be contacted on 020 7469 0200 or email: info@cardinus.com

Jon has more than 15 years’ experience of ergonomics, safety and occupational health. Over that period he has worked with a wide variety of organisations in the private and public sector providing a full range of risk management solutions including software, e-learning and consultancy.
Jon was instrumental in setting up Cardinus operations in America and Holland and is currently responsible for the sales and marketing strategy for Cardinus Risk Management Limited.

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