Last reviewed 31 January 2012

According to a survey by Virgin Business Media, 60% of those asked thought that the office will be obsolete by 2021, driven to extinction by an advancing technological tide.

While this is unlikely, there is no doubt that the way organisations work up to and beyond 2021 will be shaped by access to mobile devices such as smartphones, laptops and tablet computers.

These are already enabling a new generation of peripatetic workers. They can be seen everywhere — on the train, in the café or in the street — tapping out messages or scanning the Internet. When not using their devices to phone, text or e-mail for work, they will be catching up with friends on Facebook, tweeting, playing games or taking part in any number of other social activities.

With almost one in three UK adults now owning a smartphone, and a quarter of the country’s small and medium-sized businesses already using tablet computers, such as the iPad and Blackberry Playbook, for working on the go, the boundaries between work, family organisation and play are becoming increasingly blurred.

People are becoming ever more reliant on mobile devices. In a recent Ofcom survey, 37% of adults and 60% of teenagers described themselves as being “addicted” to their smartphones.

Smartphones, RSI and absence

As with all addictions, there is often a price to pay. In the case of mobile devices, it is the threat of repetitive strain injury (RSI) — a catch-all term covering a wide range of upper-limb conditions, such as tenosynovitis, carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis — or even more serious postural issues.

RSIs often become apparent in the short term, whereas the potentially more damaging postural issues, such as neck problems caused by constantly leaning to view a screen, may only become evident over the longer term. Unfortunately, by the time the sufferer becomes aware of a problem, much of the damage has already been done.

A new complaint, Blackberry thumb, has recently been added to the list of RSIs to describe the discomfort that some users feel following prolonged periods of texting on a smartphone. According to the Mobile Data Association, Britons sent more than 265 million texts each day in 2009 — up 23% on the previous year.

Work-related upper limb disorders (WRULDs), including RSIs, have long been one of the main causes of workplace absences, with the Health and Safety Executive reporting that an estimated 230,000 cases had been caused or made worse by work in 2009/10. They led to the loss of 3.6 million working days. One in 50 of all workers in the UK are thought to have suffered an RSI condition of one sort or another. It is little wonder, therefore, that there is a growing clamour for more to be done to protect UK workers from the health hazards posed by the increasing use of mobile devices.

DSE Regulations: time to update?

Many point out that both technology and methods of work have changed dramatically since the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 (DSE regulations) came into force, primarily to protect the health of desk-based workers. Although some minor changes were made in 2002, little has been done to amend the regulations to take account of the fact that a fast-growing percentage of the population now do much of their work on mobile devices.

So is it time to update the regulations properly to reflect the change in working conditions? It would certainly be helpful to clarify employers' responsibilities for the welfare of their staff wherever they are working.

Meanwhile, companies should be aware that the current regulations place an obligation on them to carry out assessments on people who make “prolonged use” of equipment such as mobile phones, tablet computers and laptops.

Although there is no definition of “prolonged use” — guidance on what this means for those using mobile devices would be helpful — anyone who regularly uses a small-screen portable device to write, read or edit text, view images or connect to the Internet is likely to be covered by the DSE Regulations.

As the HSE says: “It cannot be assumed that such devices [mobile phones, personal organisers, etc], having much of the functionality of full-sized DSE, are excluded because their screens are small”. Measures should therefore be taken to control the risks.

Protecting the well-being of workers

So what must health and safety managers do to ensure that the company is fulfilling its duty to protect the well-being of its mobile workers?

First, they need to ensure that proper assessments are carried out. A Microsoft survey carried out in 2008 reported that an alarming 36% of office workers had never had a formal workstation assessment. A further 12% said that their last assessment was so long ago that they could no longer recall the advice they had been given.

Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 and the DSE Regulations, there is a legal requirement on organisations to carry out DSE risk assessments — including any mobile devices in “prolonged use” — as a proactive preventive measure.

Obviously, for a workforce constantly on the move, it is not practicable to conduct a risk assessment each time someone uses mobile equipment. Workers should therefore be trained to carry out their own assessments using some of the many electronic programs now on the market. These provide a fully auditable trail of actions required and/or taken.

Remote workers will also need extra training and information on how to use their mobile equipment safely. This includes ensuring they understand the importance of good posture, the need to take regular breaks from screen work, using fingers as well as thumbs to text, and potential security issues.

Organsiations can also play their part by providing mobile workers with the right equipment. For example, where tablet computers are issued to employees, they could also be given a tablet stand and wireless folding compact keyboard to enable them to use the equipment more productively and safely.

Simple solutions

There are many simple solutions to help people minimise the risk of upper limb disorders or postural issues when using mobile electronic devices. These include the following.

  • Keep smartphone e-mails short.

  • Use fingers as well as thumbs to compose text messages on a smartphone.

  • Rest the thumbs regularly, and do not carry on with any activity that is causing pain, no matter how slight.

  • Use a separate mouse and keyboard with tablets or laptops.

  • Use a stand to raise laptops or tablets to eye level.

  • Work on a stable base and not on one’s lap.

  • Do not slouch: sit up straight with the lower back properly supported.

  • Take regular breaks, especially to reposition the head and neck, and to rest the eyes.

Employers have a legal duty to plan their employees' activities so that they can work safely. Until the regulations and guidance are updated to take account of the new ways of working, these simple control measures should keep employees working effectively and without pain, and the organisation safe from the threat of prosecution.