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  • International Workplace
  • 28 March 2017
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The mobile office: a health and safety minefield?

The advent of portable systems such as laptops, smartphones and tablets, has created changes, not only to the physical manner in which such devices are used but also in where they are used, moving ‘computer work’ out of the office and into the café, hotel, train, home and many other locations, says a new report from the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. This, in turn creates further, more complicated health and safety concerns for employers. Here we address some of the key points raised by the report.

Increasing concerns have been expressed that changes in technology and, therefore, the work environment are leading to a blurring of the distinction between work and non-work with potentially negative impacts on ‘work-life balance’. What’s more, with employees frequently working away from controlled premises, employers are faced with difficulties in ensuring that the ‘teleworker’ is working in a safe and healthy environment.

In an additional complication, says the EU-OSHA report, Ergonomics in office work, the increasing use of computing technologies in the office has been paralleled with a growth in their use at home. Starting with home computers, this has now extended to many of the same array of smart devices as used in working environments.

“This has had two major consequences. Firstly, it has increased the extent of ‘exposure’ of individuals to some of the physical risks associated with the use of these technologies and secondly, this development has led to some authorities seeking to absolve employers from any adverse consequences because of the problem of attribution of any problems (especially musculoskeletal problems) to work rather than home use.”

Advises the author of the report, Dr Richard Graveling of the Institute of Occupational Medicine. Whether working from a centralised, controlled environment or remotely, office work is often regarded as low-risk; however, there are a number of risks to health that office-based employees are exposed to. EU-OSHA breaks these down into four key groups:

Postural problems

Remaining in an essentially fixed posture for extended periods is not conducive to good health. When that posture involves sitting, then any impact of a lack of movement is exacerbated by the fact that a continually seated posture is fundamentally bad for the back. The report comments;

“Obviously how an employee does sit and work (including the posture they adopt in interacting with their computer systems) can compound the effect of the sedentary nature of their work”  

“Prolonged poor postures, especially awkward limb and neck positions, arising from insufficient attention being paid to the layout of equipment such as display screens, keyboards and other input devices will accelerate or exacerbate the development of musculoskeletal symptoms.

Duration, intensity and design of office work

It is now recognised that working for long periods without a break, with a computer keyboard and/or non-keyboard input devices that involve frequent and repetitive hand/wrist movements, can contribute to the risk of musculoskeletal problems in office workplaces.

Psychosocial factors

The psychosocial risks which can lead to mental stress or other health problems are well-known and have been long established. However, reports Dr Graveling, although some of these can be present in work which involves the use of DSE, they are generally recognised as being associated with the nature of the work, rather than any intrinsic risks associated with DSE use. Dr Graveling says, 

“However, there are growing concerns that the growth of ‘new DSE’ such as smartphones and tablets is leading to the expectation amongst some employers for workers to check emails, etc. when not at work. This blurring of the ‘work-life balance’ can lead to psychosocial risks.”

Environment

A good physical working environment is important, not only for health and wellbeing but also because an inadequate environment can have a negative impact on concentration and communication, therefore impairing work performance. Unsuitable temperatures, draughts, inadequate lighting, excessive or disturbing noise can all have an adverse impact.

Legislation

Although there will undoubtedly be manual handling activities in office environments, the guidance advises that the most important piece of legislation (at least in terms of number of employees affected) is the DSE Directive. This defines minimum safety and health requirements for work with display screen equipment.

A key feature of the requirements of the Directive and resultant national legislation is that of information and training. Educating and informing the workforce, e.g. to help workers understand the causes of risk; to identify desirable/undesirable workstation features; and to understand their role in correcting them is vital in ensuring ongoing compliance.

However, the report points out that the Directive has its drawbacks, especially in that it has failed to keep abreast of changes in technology and working practices. As a result, the authors say,

“there are no references to computer mice (for example) or for alternative seating technologies/approaches such as sit-stand chairs or standing workstations. It effectively enshrines the concept of the fixed ‘workstation’ in a conventional office environment despite the fact that many workers now do not work at set workstations (e.g. hot-desking) or even set workplaces (e.g. homeworking).”

There is also a growing recognition of the fact that the human body is designed for movement and that many of the health problems associated with sedentary work stem, not necessarily from not sitting ‘correctly’, but from the absence of movement associated with such work. Dr Graveling says:

“Some authorities suggest a more dynamic work plan, where working posture is changed periodically between sitting and standing. Other simple measures can include going and talking to work colleagues – instead of sending them an email from three desks away!”

With regards to the general health and safety of homeworkers/teleworkers, employers have a duty of care for all their employees, and the requirements of health and safety legislation apply to homeworkers. ACAS advises:

“The employer is responsible for carrying out a risk assessment to check whether the proposed home workplace's ventilation, temperature, lighting, space, chair, desk and computer, or any kind of workstation, and floor are suitable for the tasks the homeworker will be carrying out.

“The employer is responsible for the equipment it supplies, but it is the employee's responsibility to rectify any flaws in the home highlighted by the assessment. Once the home workplace has passed the assessment, it is the employee who is responsible for keeping it that way.”

The full EU-OSHA report can be viewed here.