Last reviewed 27 June 2016

Making employees aware of the risks of display screen equipment (DSE) can prevent workstation and device-associated ill health. Beverly Coleman looks at the benefits of running an effective campaign aimed at easing the pain of modern day work.

When the first office computer used for commercial business applications — the LEO I — was launched in 1951, it filled an entire room. Today’s ultra-modern electronic devices have shrunk dramatically, some to the size of a credit card, making them portable and easily accessible. In the majority of workplaces, there is no escaping DSE technology; from desktop computers to hand-held devices such as smartphones and tablets, our dependence on them now is phenomenal. It doesn’t stop there, more and more of us are becoming heavily dependent on these devices in our personal lives too. A study conducted by Deloitte found that UK consumers check their smartphones over a billion times a day. It’s no wonder that blood pressure goes skyward when the battery levels of our much-loved devices are critically low.

The risks associated with DSE use are low. However, growing dependence on devices can have ill effects on users’ posture, joints and muscles, and general wellbeing. The most common ailments are musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) such as lower back pain, repetitive strain injury (RSI), carpal tunnel syndrome, tenosynovitis, lateral epicondylosis (tennis elbow) and non-specific arm pain. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) statistics from 2013/14 on MSDs shows a 20% increase, with around 80% of new work-related illnesses attributable to work conditions, so it is worth paying attention to this area of workplace health and safety.

Who is a DSE user?

A DSE user is someone who normally uses DSE for continuous or near continuous spells of an hour or more at a time, more or less daily, needs to apply high levels of concentration and is highly dependent on DSE or simply has no choice but to use it.

Why is DSE a big deal?

In a nutshell, employers have a common law duty to take reasonable care for the safety of employees and must abide by the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 (see the HSE document L26 Work with Display Screen Equipment. Guidance on Regulations). Effective DSE management can prevent claims (in 2000 Barclays Bank paid £243,792 in damages to a former employee who sustained RSI while working at a defective workstation), increase productivity and reduce absence. Fundamentally, taking care of employee’s health and wellbeing is the right and moral thing to do.

What is a DSE awareness campaign?

A DSE awareness campaign informs a workforce of DSE users of the risks they are exposed to and how they can be prevented. The aim of any safety campaign is to increase awareness while providing guidance and solutions. The focus should be on explaining:

  • what DSE is

  • why it is important to prevent injuries

  • the types of injuries that may occur and how they are caused

  • what the employer is doing to prevent injuries, eg individual DSE risk assessments

  • advantages of correct workstation and chair set-up

  • the benefits and importance of taking regular breaks away from DSE

  • alternative devices and equipment available to ensure maximum comfort, eg mice and hybrid devices.

Why run such a campaign?

Spikes in DSE-related injuries or evidence that employees are working around their workstations as opposed to the workstations fitting around them may prompt the need for a campaign. Alternatively, DSE may just be one of a range of safety topics on which to inform employees within the year.

Running a DSE campaign is a mark of effective and inclusive safety management and shows a workforce that thought and time has gone into thinking about their welfare. It is an effective way of sharing guidance while inspiring employees to put a greater emphasis on their own wellbeing. Not only will a DSE campaign promote awareness, it can also quash any misunderstanding on internal processes and procedures, eg employees may be unsure who to contact if they start to experience aches and pains, or may not know the policy on eye care vouchers. Answers to such queries can be answered through a well-run campaign.

Who to target

The obvious targets for a DSE campaign are those who use the equipment for work day in, day out. Not all workers do, and neither do all users work from an office so it is paramount that workers in satellite offices and home workers are not forgotten. Health and safety for those who work from home can be neglected. At home, workstations can be anything from a well set-up desk to a sofa or bed and homeworkers tend to put in excessive hours without adequate breaks.

Planning

The most successful campaigns are those that involve employees at the planning stage. Seeking input from DSE users is a good starting point and will lead to greater buy-in; this can be done by issuing questionnaires or discussing DSE at team meetings. Knowing what furniture and equipment is used company-wide is a must, as is how to operate it, as this will be key to the message being communicated; as such an inventory would be a good idea. Campaigns don’t need to be confined to posters on noticeboards: the intranet, text messages, videos and emails are all great ways of getting the message across.

If planning to make a major change that will have an effect on the way DSE is used (eg switching to hot desking, rolling out a new hand-held device or changing the office furniture), building in time so that employees are informed well in advance is vital and where trade unions are recognised or safety representatives need to be informed this should be slotted into your plan.

Successful campaigns may be linked to events within the business or externally, eg in conjunction with a wellbeing initiative such as Wellbeing Month or national awareness campaigns like Back Care Awareness Week. Give the campaign a shelf life, it could be a week, a month, cross-over several months even; this way you can effectively plan what is to be said and when.

Information sources

There is a wealth of information available to help compose an effective DSE campaign. Key places to look include the EU-OHSA, the HSE and NHS websites, and even YouTube. Remember to highlight the key factors: the individual, furniture, job design, environment and equipment/software.

Launch

Choose an appropriate time to launch the campaign; too close to public holidays such as Christmas or the school summer holidays are not ideal because many employees will not be at work to see it. Neither is the end of the financial year, when all attention is on financial figures as opposed to the human figure.

Once the optimum launch date is identified, ensure that employees are involved in getting the message across. Get senior management, and trade union and employee representatives on board as they will champion the campaign and cascade it down to others. Be creative and take advantage of the resources available but remember to build in mechanisms to measure how successful the campaign is, eg feedback forms and DSE assessment reviews.

Last, while using the campaign to promote better use of DSE, don’t forget to mention good old-fashioned face-to-face communication. Nothing can beat getting up to have a conversation with a colleague. It’s personal, responses are immediate and in the words of Charles Dickens, “Electric communication will never be a substitute for the face of someone who with their soul encourages another person to be brave and true.” What a forward thinker.