Official ergonomics guidance is no longer fit for purpose in Europe

The European Display Screen Equipment Regulations were first introduced in 1992 as a way of improving the posture and wellbeing of people working with computers in the office. Although welcome at the time as a way of promoting good ergonomics practices in a rapidly digitising world, that’s now a long time ago and the workplace has changed a great deal in the meantime. Here’s a list of thing that have happened in the intervening years: 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, especially one that is based on how we should work with computers, let alone other devices. 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 It’s all so hopelessly out of date, it’s like starting a farm using a paleolithic cave painting as your guide to animal husbandry. The guidance is even called Working with VDUs which is certainly quaint, if nothing else.

At the most straightforward level, you can take an image from one of the published guides such as this and play a little game of spot the anachronism. Yet beyond the ability to snort at cathode ray tubes and flimsy task chairs, there is a fundamental failure in these regulations to deal HSE posture_0000with 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 five years ago. An equivalent diagram could not now be produced for somebody sitting on a sofa with an iPad, in a cafe on their phone or with a laptop on their knee on the train.

What is increasingly recognised as important is movement. Many chairs are designed to encourage this, and offices can be designed to encourage movement, but in reality good ergonomics is now 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 if 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 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.

Image: A paleolithic bison in the Cave of Alatamira in Spain

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