Many employees leave responsibility for health and safety issues up to their employer. Yet, even if a company has clear, comprehensive, policies in place, as the law demands, and proactively promotes them, it won't amount to much unless individuals do their bit to stay fit and healthy.
"Employees have legal duties too, including co-operating with their employer," explains Owen Tudor, senior health and safety policy officer at the Trades Union Congress (TUC). "It is the employer who takes most of the decisions at work and you can't delegate ultimate responsibility for health and safety."
Moreover, the potentially harmful effects of working with computers are increasingly well documented, so there is no excuse for bad practice.
This week is an ideal time for IT professionals to assess their working environment because it is the European Week for Safety and Health. The initiative aims to increase awareness of safety and health at work, both for employees and employers, and encourage both parties to look proactively at improving the workplace. This year it is focusing on back pain and musculo-skeletal disorders, coinciding with Back Care week.
"Musculo-skeletal and back pain affects a lot of people and is the single biggest cause of days lost from work," says Peter Rimmer, director of information for the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), which promotes the week. Musculo-skeletal pain is a broad-ranging term that encompasses work-related upper and lower limb disorders, more commonly referred to as repetitive strain injury (RSI).
Symptoms of RSI range from pain, weakness, restriction or loss of movement, tingling, numbness, tenderness, swelling, muscle spasms and spontaneous flicking movements, and these sensations are not only limited to working hours. Some sufferers find that the problem persists even after periods of rest and, for an unfortunate few, they have RSI for life. The RSI Association says 3%-4% of RSI victims suffer long-term damage.
Frequent and heavy lifting or moving of objects are obvious causes of musculo-skeletal and back pain, and ITers working in support roles should take particular care to move and lift objects correctly. One of the other major causes, of course, is computer work. Prolonged bouts of sitting in front of a computer, probably carrying out repetitive tasks, can result in all sorts of problems.
The first step is for people to look at their immediate surroundings. Don't be afraid to make any changes or ask for a formal assessment - employers are legally bound to ensure that employee workstations meet all the legislative requirements and suit individuals. Even if you don't have your own desk and are hot-desking, for example, you are still fully entitled to insist that inadequate workstations are changed. "People have different requirements and should make sure that they do things like adjust their seat and screen to suit them," explains Rimmer. "Same as you adjust the seat and mirror if you get in someone else's car."
Don't think this is the sum of it though. A lot of muscle and back problems could be avoided by good practice, for example, maintaining a good posture, taking regular screen breaks, avoiding long periods of repetitive action, keeping stress levels down etc.
It is all too easy to forget though and let standards slip, particularly for people doing stressful jobs. Stress in itself can cause health problems, not least because when the pressure piles on, personal health considerations tend to take a back seat. IT professionals are particularly at risk to a whole host of ailments because their job is normally a sedentary one, so if you're working long hours to get a project finished, any problems will be compounded.
Also, as most ITers spend a considerable amount of time surrounded by electrical equipment, they run a high risk of contracting sick building syndrome. Regarded by some as the ultimate blagger's excuse, there is growing evidence to support the theory that this condition exists. Computers, air conditioning, photocopiers - all electrical equipment is under scrutiny in case it is radiating harmful substances. Anyone who thinks they are suffering from sick building syndrome may find it hard to prove, but they should let their employers know.
In fact, anyone who experiences any kind of work-related illnesses should take action immediately before long-term damage sets in. Check out what health and safety policies your company has in place. Ask about free eye tests. Many organisations, particularly the larger ones, have occupational health departments.
Some offer free physiotherapy, massages or other treatments. You may even be fortunate enough to work for a dotcom that provides yoga and relaxation sessions for employees. Make time in the working day to take advantage of any activities like this - as well as the health benefits, it will make you more productive in the long run.
Even if you're someone who works from home, be it on a regular or permanent basis, your employer is still liable for your health. "Companies still have the same duty of care," says Rimmer. "And people should take the same precautions when they're working from home."
It may not sound like the most exciting issue to think about, but then nor is suffering years of back pain or headaches. If you're still not convinced that workplace health is a top priority, then reflect on what Tudor has to say: "Over 100,000 people a year develop RSI because of office work and if it's not treated and dealt with, those people could be excluding themselves from the jobs of the future."
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This was first published in October 2000