Ergonomic update: Are you taking the tablets?

Tablet ergonomicsTwenty years ago the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 came into force, introduced in response to a growing number of complaints of repetitive strain injury (RSI), or to use the broader term musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) amongst office workers. Although it took time for the disorder to be identified, the message gradually got through that sitting all day in the same position banging away at a keyboard was not conductive to sound ergonomics or good health. In the early 90s I was an early adopter of a laptop (or luggable PC) and had to take four months off work after developing pain and numbness in my arms and wrists.

So there’s no doubt in my mind that the DSE regulations have done much to prevent unnecessary injuries in what is after all the innocuous setting of an office. However, as with the widespread adoption of computer keyboards and screens in the 80s, there’s now growing evidence that the use of tablets and other mobile devices could lead to another wave of injuries. Bloggers are already asking if the latest Windows 8 touchpad technology are “ergonomically challenged” – and the legal experts at Asons Solicitors report an increase in Occupational RSI claims, related to the use of tablets.

The law firm cites a Forrester report which found that 66 per cent of employees now use two or more devices every day; be it a traditional desktop, laptop, mobile or tablet. The convenience of using tablets is clearly an advantage, but reportedly, doctors have already seen cases of RSI from individuals who spend just a couple of hours on their tablets each day.

According to the health and safety experts at Workplace Law, the DSE Regulations are looking hopelessly outdated, defining as they do, “workstation operatives” which brings to mind office workers staring at a large CRT screen, feet firmly planted on their ergonomic foot rest.

What’s the more likely scenario is someone updating a report on the train using their i-Pad, or a group of people meeting up in the breakout area all with tablets at the ready.

According to Ashtons using a tablet involves repeating a few very specific actions and bending over a small screen, which can put pressure on the back and neck. Over the last year complaints of ‘iPad Shoulder’ have developed, where holding the tablet with one hand can cause the wrist to become strained, putting pressure on the shoulder.

The firm warns that if businesses are to continue to integrate tablets within the work place, it is important that their employees are aware of the effects prolonged use may have and how they can prevent RSI. Even if the DSE regulations are not relevant to the use of tablets, employers still have a legal duty under the ‘Health and Safety at Work Act, 1974’ and the ‘Management of Health and Safety at work Regulations, 1999’ to prevent work related RSI and protect current cases from worsening.

Unlike the industrial injuries of the past, RSI, is not life threatening – but it can be life limiting. One journalist colleague of mine who began experiencing problems shooed them away with pain killers, resulting in her inability to so much as brush her teeth without severe pain, the end of a promising career and a claim for damages.

By Sara Bean