Computer health and safety at work
Employees who regularly work with display screen equipment (DSE) such as computers - also known as visual display units (VDUs) - may be at risk of getting aches and pains. These injuries normally affect the hands, arms, neck or back. They are especially at risk if they work for long uninterrupted periods. These upper limb disorders may become persistent or even disabling if they are not reported and treated early.
Workers using DSE for long periods are also at risk of temporary eyestrain and related problems such as headaches, stress and back pain. This could lead to time off work and lost productivity.
Under health and safety law, employers have a duty to reduce risks to staff using DSE.
This guide outlines how to create comfortable working conditions for users through good workplace design. It will tell you how to set up good working practices for DSE work. It also covers how to train staff to use DSE safely.
Display screen equipment health and safety
Computer screens, keyboards and pointing devices must meet certain criteria to comply with to meet health and safety law and protect your staff from injuries
Under health and safety law, you must ensure that computer screens or monitors, keyboards, pointing devices, furniture and the working environment meet certain minimum requirements. They must be easy to adjust to each person's needs.
In most cases computer screens should:
- tilt and swivel to suit the needs of the user
- be adjusted to the correct height for the user - either using a separate base or an adjustable table
- show clear characters with enough spacing
- show a stable image with no flickering
- have easily adjustable brightness and contrast controls
- be free of reflected glare
- have a screen size suitable for its intended use
You should also ensure that users:
- know how to adjust brightness and contrast controls to suit lighting conditions
- keep the screen surface clean
- know how to adjust software settings to make text large enough to read easily
- take frequent breaks
- be tilt-adjustable and separate from the screen to allow the user to work comfortably
- have enough space in front of them to allow the user to rest their hands and arms when not keying
- be legible and have a matt surface to minimise glare
You should also ensure that users:
- adjust the keyboard to a comfortable position
- keep their wrists straight when typing
- use the keys lightly and don't overstretch their fingers
- take frequent breaks
If an employee uses a mouse, trackball or other pointing device for long periods, they may develop problems in their hands, wrists or upper body.
You can minimise risk by:
- training the user to use the mouse with a relaxed arm and a straight wrist
- informing the user that their fingers should rest lightly on the buttons and not press too hard
- limiting the length of intensive sessions using pointing devices
- ensuring users take frequent short breaks
- ensuring the device is suitable for the task
- training the user in keyboard shortcuts
- training the user to adjust the software settings - these control the reaction time between the mouse and the cursor on the screen
Laptop health and safety
What to consider before you buy a laptop for your employees to use, how to reduce the health and safety risks and the training you must provide by law
Some of the design features on laptops and other portable computers can make them uncomfortable to use for long periods. Employees shouldn't routinely use laptops where full-sized equipment is available. Alternatively, they should be provided with a laptop docking station so that they can work with a full-sized keyboard and screen.
What to consider when buying laptops
When you're thinking about buying portable computers, they should ideally:
- be as light as possible - 3 kilograms or under
- be fitted with as large and clear a screen as possible - preferably detachable or height-adjustable
- come with a lightweight carrying case with handle and shoulder straps
- have as long a battery life as possible and have extra transformer/cable sets so that the user has a set in each main location where the equipment is used
- have a tilt-adjustable keyboard
- be able to be used with a docking station
- have friction pads underneath to prevent the laptop from sliding across work surfaces
- have enough memory and speed for the software used
Employee laptop training
You must provide training for employees using portable display screen equipment (DSE).
In addition to ordinary DSE training, training for laptop users should include information on:
- comfortable postures for using a laptop
- using the keyboard at the right height
- adjusting the screen to reduce reflection and glare
- the need for regular rest breaks
- how to report any problems that develop
- how to reduce the manual handling risk, eg by reducing the amount of extra equipment and paperwork to be carried
- how to reduce the risk from theft or mugging
Workstation health and safety: desks, chairs and posture
What standards your furniture must meet for a safe computer workstation and what your employees need to be aware of to work safely including posture
A user's workstation furniture should minimise the risk of injuries. Posture also plays a vital role in preventing upper limb disorders.
Desk health and safety
The work desk or work surface should:
- be big enough to allow the user to arrange the screen, keyboard, documents, etc in a flexible way
- have a matt surface
- be big enough to let the user work comfortably and to change position
- be stable and positioned so that it's comfortable and easy to use where an employee uses a document holder
Office chair health and safety
Workstation chairs should:
- be stable and allow the user to work comfortably
- be adjustable in height
- have a seatback adjustable in height and tilt
Other workstation considerations
Other features of the workstation you should consider include:
- arm supports must not interfere with movement, eg by stopping the user getting the chair under the work surface
- seat width should be wider than the hip width of the person using it
- the back rest should provide support for the back in all sitting positions, particularly the lumbar region.
- a foot rest may be needed if users are unable to rest their feet flat on the floor
- the importance of correct and comfortable seating should be emphasised to employees in a risk assessment
Posture when using a computer
Adopting the right posture when working at a computer is very important in order to prevent health problems. You must ensure that employees are aware of good posture and technique, including the importance of:
- avoiding sitting in the same position for long periods
- keeping their forearms roughly horizontal, and their eyes at the same height as the top of the display screen equipment
- ensuring items that are regularly used are within easy reach
- positioning a mouse or other pointing device close by so they can use it with a relaxed arm and a straight wrist
Working conditions for computer users
Monitor office conditions such as humidity, temperature, lighting and noise levels to ensure a healthy working environment for employees who use computers
The general conditions in the workplace also have an effect on the health and safety of display screen equipment users.
You need to assess:
- Noise levels - the equipment shouldn't be so noisy that it distracts the user. If you can't use quieter equipment, consider soundproofing or moving the equipment. You could use sound-insulating partitions between noisy equipment and the rest of the workstation as an alternative.
- Lighting - surrounding windows must have curtains or blinds which users can adjust to prevent reflected glare. If needed, provide users with lighting appropriate to their tasks and particular workstation. Users should have control over their lighting to prevent reflected glare.
- Temperature - the equipment should not give out so much heat that the user becomes uncomfortable.
- Humidity - it's important that you maintain ventilation and humidity at a level which keeps the user comfortable.
For further information on how you can maintain a healthy working environment, see what workplace facilities do you need to provide?
Computer health and safety: task design and rest breaks
You must plan the activities of computer users so that they don't work for long uninterrupted periods on display screen equipment (DSE). You can do this through a combination of rest breaks and changes in work activity which allow users to change posture.
You also have a duty to tell employees about the importance of changing activities and taking breaks and to encourage them to do both. See what you need to do about health and safety.
Good design of the task can be as important as the right choice of furniture and equipment. Whenever possible you should:
- design jobs so that employees have a mix of activities and some say over which tasks they perform and when
- match staffing levels to workload so that individuals are neither overworked nor underworked
- give employees some say in the way work is planned and carried out
An employee's need for rest breaks will vary depending on the type of work they are doing and how intensely they are working. As a general rule however:
- Short, frequent breaks are better than longer, less frequent ones. A five to ten minute break after 50-60 minutes' DSE work is better than a 15-20 minute break after two hours.
- The employee should have some choice over when to take breaks.
- Employees should be encouraged to do different tasks or activities during their break, ideally away from the workstation.
Train employees to use computers safely
Train employees in safe computer use including correct posture, technique and breaks and also ensure homeworkers work safely and are insured and are trained
Under health and safety law, you must train your employees in the safe use of display screen equipment (DSE). This training should include:
- the health risks of using DSE incorrectly
- how to position and adjust all equipment and furniture to make it comfortable
- the importance of good posture and the need to change position frequently
- the right technique for using a keyboard, mouse, etc
- how to use the hardware and software
- the need for short, frequent breaks from screen work
- how to recognise the warning signs of health problems from DSE use
- how to report any problems
- entitlement to an eyesight test
- the need to clean and inspect DSE regularly to identify any problems
You must also tell employees about the minimum standards relating to DSE and risk assessment.
Where you upgrade or replace equipment or furniture, you must ensure that you retrain staff accordingly and revise the risk assessment.
As an employer, you have a duty to ensure that employees working at home or from other locations do so safely. Homeworkers may carry out their own risk assessments using an ergonomic checklist, but you will have to train them to do so. Employees using workstations at home or at other locations away from the office will need training in the safe use of DSE.
They will also need extra training covering:
- how to conduct a risk assessment of their workstation
- the importance of good posture, taking breaks, etc to make up for the lack of direct supervision
- how to report any problems
Computer workstation risk assessment
By law, employers must carry out risk assessments on computer workstations and the employees who use them. This includes homeworkers. A risk assessment should cover all aspects of the task and workplace.
These aspects will include:
- the physical layout of equipment and furniture
- the job being done
- the user's posture
- any special needs of staff
- the need for rest breaks
- the general office environment
Where you identify a problem, you must take steps to reduce the risk to staff.
It's good practice to arrange a re-assessment if there are any changes affecting the workstation or the user directly. For example, if new equipment or furniture is brought in, a re-assessment will help identify the best ergonomic layout. Similarly, when an employee informs you that she is pregnant, a review should be carried out urgently and repeated regularly as the pregnancy develops. Where an employee reports a repetitive strain injury, a re-assessment should be carried out to help prevent a recurrence of symptoms.
Using a checklist
Employees who are involved in risk assessments are more likely to report any problems as they occur. A good way of doing this is to get staff to fill in an ergonomic best practice checklist covering each aspect of the workstation. You should get completed checklists reviewed by an assessor who has been trained to help identify any problems and find a solution.
Free eye tests for employees who use computers
You have a responsibility to provide eyesight tests for employees who use display screen equipment and you may have to pay for glasses needed for work
All employees who regularly use display screen equipment (DSE) have the right to ask you to pay for eye and eyesight tests. This will be carried out by an optometrist or doctor and it's your duty to pay the fee. DSE users have the right to regular tests thereafter.
Employers only have to pay for glasses if special ones are needed for DSE work and the employee can't use normal glasses. Where special glasses are prescribed, you only have to cover the basic cost, ie the lenses and frames. It's a good idea to set a fixed limit for the basic cost of glasses and use your staff handbook to communicate this. If an employee wants to buy frames or glasses that exceed this limit, you must still pay the basic cost but the employee must make up the difference.
To prevent temporary eye strain and related problems, such as headaches, fatigue and stress, it is important to ensure that your employees take regular rest breaks and that workstations meet the minimum risk standards. See display screen equipment health and safety and computer health and safety: task design and rest breaks.
Ensure healthy computer use at work: six top tips
Staff who work with computers for long periods can be at risk of injury to their hands, arms, neck or back. Eye strain and related problems like headaches can lead to absence and reduced productivity.
Under health and safety law, you must ensure that computer screens and associated equipment, including the working environment meet certain minimum requirements.
Employers have a duty to reduce the risks. Appropriate equipment, posture, workstation set-up and training can all help achieve this. Follow these tips to help staff to work safely at their computer.
1. Encourage staff to take short frequent breaks. Taking a five to ten minute break every hour will be more beneficial for employees than a longer break every two hours.
2. Adjust lighting to prevent glare. Turn overhead lights off or down, and close blinds or curtains when light is reflecting off screens.
3. All regularly used items on the desk, such as the phone, should be easily within reach. Staff should use their mouse with a relaxed arm and straight wrist.
4. Ensure your employee's screens are at the correct height (the top of the screen should be at eye-level) and are a suitable size for the task. Chairs should have adjustable height and seatbacks to let staff work comfortably.
5. If staff regularly use display screen equipment you must offer free eye tests for employees who use computers. If workers require special glasses for computer work, you will have to pay for the basic cost of the frames and lenses.
6. Offer a computer workstation risk assessment. Employers must carry these out for all computer users and take steps to reduce risks when problems are identified.