Workplaces are changing; thanks to technology we no longer need to be glued to our desktop computers. Increasing numbers of us have the freedom to roam with a variety of work devices, including laptops, tablets and phones. But what are the risks involved, and are employers addressing them properly?
These are the issues Ed Milnes CErgHF addressed in his Posturite webinar, Mobile working - managing ergonomics issues in the changing workplace. Ed is a former specialist inspector in ergonomics for the HSE and now runs ergonomics and human factors consultancy in Guildford. He also co-developed guidance on managing the musculoskeletal risks from mobile working for the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (CIEH).
Ed begins his webinar by describing laptops, phones, tablets as a potential 'ergonomic disaster zone'. Even the latest iPhone User Guide contains warnings about overuse and repetitive activities. However, what does the evidence really say about the use of mobile devices and musculoskeletal issues?
Ed starts by outlining the definitions of various terms:
Agile working - Bringing people, processes, connectivity and technology, time and place together to find the most appropriate and effective way of working to carry out a particular task. It is working within guidelines (of the task) but without boundaries (of how you achieve it).
Remote working - Working away from the office - but potentially still in a fixed set up. Includes home working, working at a client, or satellite offices.
Flexible - Reference to the contractual arrangements - ability to manage hours and days.
"These terms don't capture the ergonomic issues so we wanted to coin a term that captured that, so we came up with mobile working."
Mobile working - Any work-related use of a laptop, smartphone, tablet, or other portable DSE either at or away from your desk. Encompasses all these other terms.
What does the evidence say about mobile working?
Ed was keen to emphasise the fact that research into mobile working and MSDs is ongoing and continually growing. In the webinar he runs through some of the specific challenges faced when researching in this area.
"It's hard to get good, reliable information about how we use these devices and the effects they have."
Some reasons include:
- Large sample needed - too expensive
- Self-assessments - unreliable
- Subjectivity of pain - hard to assess
- 42% of people with existing neck pain showed 40 degree neck flexion vs just 7% of those without neck pain.
- Text entry frequency correlates with prevalence of De Quervain's syndrome.
- 30 mins of phone use signalled median nerve compression.
- Neck discomfort reported 10 minutes after phone use - worse in those who already had neck issues.
- The associations of mobile touch screen device use with musculoskeletal symptoms and exposures: A systematic review - Toh, Coenen, Howie, Straker (2017)
- Prevalence and risk factors associated with musculoskeletal complaints among users of mobile handheld devices: a systematic review - Xie, Szeto, Dai (2017)
"It's useful to step back from these highly detailed scientific analyses because there's plenty of anecdotal information available. If you speak to any osteopath, chiropractor, physiotherapist, they'll be more than happy to tell you about clients they've had, even young clients who they wouldn't have seen previously, coming in with issues related to how they use these devices.
"Do we just sit and wait for the perfect set of epidemiological prospective cohort studies when people are actually suffering from MSDs because of these devices? Or do we take a more proactive approach to manage the risks?"
What can be done by employers?
When using handheld technology, our vulnerable and valuable necks can be affected by:
- Tension headaches, migraines.
- Loss of movement range - comfort and safety implications.
- Cervical neck dysfunction - instability/woolly head, visual disturbance, dizziness.
- Nerve impingement - from muscle tension and/or cervical disc bulges.
- Referred pain and loss of function along arms, into fingers hands and wrists.
- Cervical disc degeneration.
"In short it's really important that we look after our necks as best we can. We're not just talking about a sore neck, we're potentially talking about chronic conditions that can affect people's quality of life."
What legally needs to be done?
It's important to note that the DSE regulations apply to mobile DSE being used for prolonged periods.
There is no hard and fast definition about what prolonged use means but it refers to:
- habitually in use
- used more or less daily
- demands high concentration
- demands fast input and referencing
- dependent on/little choice but to use it
Ed believes that one area in need of debate is the optimal duration of mobile device use. He questions the existing guidance of no longer than an hour due to some evidence showing problems can set in sooner than this.
"My own view is the time trigger needs to be significantly lower, and that's what we suggest in the guidance."
Employers have a general duty of care to manage the risks of any equipment they give to employees.
Challenges for managers
- Equipment choice and suitability - weight and bulk of it, which ancillary aids (laptop stands, mice, keyboard) are needed?
- Mission creep - cumulatively the amount of tasks carried out on these devices can increase without us realising.
- People are out of sight, out of mind - difficulty keeping track.
- Do policies match up with the reality of how people are using these devices?
- Culture of how we use our devices - do we recognise the risks in culture, or are they devices of convenience rather than comfort?
"It's really important that health and safety managers or people in that kind of role are in the loop when decisions like this are made. You can end up with really expensive mistakes and quite unhappy users with kit that just doesn't match the job being done."
Action to take
Assess the risks - get to know what's going on, how the kit is being used. Then address the risks.
- Select the right kit in first place - devices themselves and the ancillary kit
- Set clear boundaries of when mobile working isn't expected
- Define the tasks to be done - are they reasonable in the circumstances?
From an agile point of view, be cautious about creating swathes of breakout areas that will end up being used intensively for long periods (when they aren't really appropriate for that kind of use).
- Make sure senior management set good example.
- Have a sensible policy and stick to it.
- Provide training for users and managers.
- consider holding mixed generation training sessions (it's a cross-generational issue).
- mixed manage/user training sessions.
- Digital detox initiatives.
- Support for more extreme cases - mental health issues, addiction.