March 31, 2015
The European Display Screen Equipment Regulations were introduced in 1992 as a way of improving the posture and wellbeing of people working on computers in the office. That’s a long time ago. Too long, in fact. Here’s a list of thing that have happened since then – 1. The Internet. Actually, we can stop there. Any piece of workplace legislation that predates the Internet almost certainly won’t be fit for purpose, not least one that is based on how we should work with computers. Yet there it all is on the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website. It’s all so hopelessly out of date, it’s like starting a farm using an Altamira cave painting as your guide. At the most straightforward level, you can take an image from one of the published guides such as this (below) and play a little game of spot the anachronism.
Yet beyond the ability to snort at cathode ray tubes, there is a fundamental failure in these regulations to deal with the fact that ergonomics isn’t about posture any more. Good posture helps but the way we work does not generally lend itself to fixed working positions as it did twenty years ago. An equivalent diagram could not now be produced for somebody sat on the sofa with an iPad or sitting with a laptop on their knee on the train.
What is increasingly recognised as important is movement. Some chairs are designed to encourage this, and offices can be designed to encourage movement, but in reality good ergonomics is primarily about good management. The best example of how this works is not to be found in offices at all but schools.
Because children typically don’t stay in one lesson for more than an hour at a time, it doesn’t really matter that most of them use computers while sitting on a polyprop chair. It doesn’t even matter that the anthropometric range for a five year spread of pupils is vastly greater than for working adults. Kids are far more likely to do themselves harm by adopting fixed positions when using technology at home, than at school.
So within reason, it’s not a specific posture that is the problem but the time spent in it. What we now need are regulations that reflect this fundamental change in the way we interact with the things we use at work. What the HSE offers instead is guidance from another world, and they even expect you to pay for it.