The mobile technology revolution and the rise of RSI

Illustration of person using an iPadIan Fletcher-Price, CEO of Posturite Ltd, gives his view about how the use of smartphones and tablet computers may be creating a generation of employees with serious postural and limb disorders.

What chance has the office got of surviving the mobile technology revolution? Not a lot, if the findings of a recent survey by Virgin Business Media are to be believed. Apparently, 60% of people now think that the office will have gone the way of the dodo by 2021, driven to extinction by an ever-advancing technological tide.

It is an amazing thought, and one that I personally do not buy for a moment. Apart from anything else, there is far too much corporate and pension fund money tied up in commercial property to let it disappear. But there is no doubt that the way we work up to and beyond 2021 will increasingly be shaped by our access to mobile devices such as smartphones, laptops and tablet computers.

They are already enabling a whole new generation of peripatetic workers. You see them everywhere — on the train, in the cafe, or walking along the street — fingers and thumbs a blur as they tap out important messages or scan the Internet for vital information. When they are not using their devices to telephone, text or e-mail for work, they will be catching up with friends on Facebook, tweeting, playing games, checking their finances, booking restaurants or 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.

It also means that 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 workplace absence

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

RSIs can 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, it is often the case that by the time you become aware of a problem, the damage has 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. As yet there are no published figures for 2010, but it is safe to assume that they will not have decreased, and neither will the cases of Blackberry Thumb.

Work-related upper limb disorders (WRULDs), including RSIs, have long been one of the main causes of workplace absences, with the HSE 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. So it is little wonder 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 for an update?

The TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber is one of many who have queried the effectiveness of current regulations to deal with the growing scourge of RSIs. “We urgently need new and clear regulations, backed up by strong enforcement, against those employers that are causing many of these injuries,” he said.

Much has been made of the fact that technology and the way we work have both changed dramatically since the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 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 the regulations were updated to properly reflect the change in working conditions? It certainly would not do any harm to spell things out more clearly to employers so that they can be in no doubt about the responsibility they have to the welfare of their staff wherever they are working.

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