Question: I have a commissioning editor interested in RSI for a new TV health series, but I haven’t fully convinced them that I have a sufficient range of stories. Could you tell me a little more about your situation? Also, I’m looking for surprising new and referenced facts about RSI. Any indications that business in the UK is taking it seriously? Any examples of good or bad corporate responses to RSI? Is there any evidence that poor ergonomics is affecting children? I particularly need short personal descriptions at this stage.
Answer 1: I don’t believe the situation with RSI will change for people until there is some way for an accurate (anonymous) count of people affected. Government numbers are only the tip of the iceberg.
Answer 2: An excellent agreement has been negotiated at Inland Revenue. You can find out about it from Phil Madelin, Health & Safety Officer for PTC (the union at Inland Revenue). The PTC address is 5 Great Suffolk Street, London SE1 0NS, tel 0171-960-3000. There have been “indications”, perhaps, rather than hard evidence that poor ergonomics is affecting children. Lots and lots of undergraduates are turning up with RSI. The fact that they are so young suggests the problem may have started while they were still at school. Undergraduates are in a particularly bad position, having no power whatsoever to influence the university to improve the provisions. And if you’ve ever looked in a computing lab at a university (at least the ones I’ve seen), it is not a pretty sight. Long unadjustable desks with PCs at fixed locations, with chairs that tend to be just whatever cheap stackable happens to be left over from other requirements. SKILL (the agency for disabled students) might be able to help here, or if they can’t, it might be worth speaking to the Disabled Students Advisor at a few of the universities — most unis have them. SKILL number can be found on RSI-UK web page, UK resources. The Display Screen Regulations don’t apply to students. Health and Safety regulations in general do apply, but the average undergraduate is not really equipped to confront his/her university administration. They would simply be brushed off, and then would perhaps have little idea of what to do to get the issue dealt with satisfactorily. (What indeed?) And yes, I do have a tale to tell, about my battle with a large London local authority (guess who won). I’ll send it to you privately. But personally and on the whole, I would be glad to see a programme emphasize that it is IN THE INTERESTS OF EMPLOYERS to make sure the office equipment is not crippling people. There is altogether too much confrontation between employers and employees over the issue — I think that it delays progress towards reaching workable solutions. And it also distorts diagnoses, and makes it harder for people to receive appropriate advice. (Doctors don’t like to get involved in employer-employee disputes, so there is little doubt that some will resist attributing an injury to computer use, even when it is quite clear.) That’s why I think it’s important to include information about how employers can handle it differently, e.g., the Inland Revenue agreement.
Answer 3: Undergraduates suffer from a number of stress problems. Glandular fever is almost legendarily a student disease. One problem is that students’ unions do not take this seriously either. Universities are incredibly short of money for all purposes. However bad morality it is, they cannot afford to put the correct kit in student computer rooms. Serious decisions have to be made simply to finance the computer room themselves. While such things remain within “political” arena (“it’s only the unions trying to get us by a different route”; “socialist balderdash”; “tories trying to do a minimum for the workers”; etc.) then we’ll never see what is actually necessary. Some straightforward research on how many people are affected and what the critical factors are is urgently needed. It is my private belief that the primary cause of RSI is stress. Where good personal control of work is in place, with high job satisfaction from the duties on the computer, even lousy set-ups seem to produce much less RSI than you’d expect – in my personal experience at least. Sadly, we live in perhaps the most stressed work environment ever – so how do we deal with the situation? Anyone who reads this must be aware of how many highly competent people are going down with RSI. Industry is losing its best staff to this plague and seems to want to shut its eyes until the problem goes away. What will it do when none of its expert staff can use a keyboard and mouse? When its best staff start going sick for 6-12 months and fall behind in the red queen’s race which is today’s computer world? I wish I knew what to do.
Answer 4: So it is possible to install the computers but not possible to install the (relatively cheap) setup that will help prevent injuries? This is completely misguided and a very dangerous attitude to promulgate, even if you don’t agree with it yourself – any safety-related spending is vulnerable to this sort of argument, but I am sure that none of us would like to see reduced spending on seat belts, railway safety, aircraft maintenance checks, and so on. The solution is to spend a little less on the computers (or buy fewer workstations) and spend the money saved on workstation setup. Often a correct setup is hardly any more expensive than a harmful one – a low cost height-adjustable chair, plus a keyboard tray that adjusts in height and takes a mouse, is the main thing. The monitor should not just be on the table, but often putting it on a desktop PC case is enough – there is little need for an expensive adjustable support IMO. Many of the people that I informally help with workstation setup are fine with telephone books under the monitor and a re-arranged workstation.
Answer 5: Universities have collections of old tables and chairs kept for situations when the equipment has money earmarked but not the room fittings and the kit would otherwise have to be used on the floor. What you guys in industry don’t realise is that if the university uses some of the money specifically earmarked for computers for correct furniture, they will be in serious problems with granting bodies. If they use monies from university funds they will probably have to sack someone or not renew their contract. We are currently running in science teaching areas with equipment 20-30 years old. We are now in the situation that as staff retire or are encouraged to take early retirement, pieces of kit quickly become unusable because no one any longer knows how to maintain them. I use equipment scrounged from other establishments for my work because we do not have money for it. Send your (valid) comments to those who are refusing to fun this nation’s future!