RSI, Health and Safety

Question: Is the argument that the employer is underfunded a good enough excuse for them to ignore their duties under EU and UK health and safety laws? Is using the system whereby the employee chases the employer to do something acceptable? Or has the employer got a duty to be proactive in prevention? Comments would be welcomed!

Comment 1: I wonder if it isn’t often a case of how the H & S laws are interpreted. I’ve read many of the leaflets regarding obligations of employers and entitlements of employees, and I’m still unclear exactly how far employers are supposed to go. Simply providing the correct equipment is useless if people are not taught how to use it. For example, workstation assessments are all very well but you need to examine working practices too. The kind of proactive approach I’m thinking about is a sticker on every computer reminding you to take breaks etc., notices warning of the dangers of overuse, regular updates on ergonomic practices and so on. I talked to one woman who had worked in a London publisher (as a menial temp!) where the managing director walked around every day reminding each member of staff, including the temps, to take a break. My employer doesn’t use the excuse of lack of money. They just keep promising to update their practices. 6 years after I got my RSI, they’re assessing everyone’s workstation in the building but there is one person
doing this and 4 floors of staff.

Comment 2: There are two aspects of law in this – criminal law and civil law. The criminal law concerns the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and the Statutory Regulations and Orders made under it – in particular the Display Screen Regulations 1992 in this case. Civil Law is not an area I do much with and others will be able to explain more succinctly than I. It concerns duty of care and tort of negligence (among others). An employer has a duty of care to his employees and the law seeks to find whether he has discharged it to the standard a reasonable employer might be expected to do, and if not whether actual injury was caused by his negligence. The criminal law is in fact proactive. The employer and employee responsibilities are fairly clear. The employer has a duty to provide a safe working environment without risks to health as far as is reasonably practicable, while the employee has a duty to cooperate with the employer (in health and safety) and not to misuse anything provided for health and safety purposes.

The Display Screen Regulations require the employer to carry out a written workstation assessment and to change the workstation to comply with certain conditions, if the employee working at that workstation is identified as a “user”. This is where all the requirements for free eye tests, appropriate seats and desks and other necessary hardware come in. Even where this is policed very strictly, it is difficult to get compliance and it seems from this list, that few employers are actually carrying out these assessments. The regulations do not actually prevent all WRULD problems, but where they are obeyed they certainly seem to have an impact on the sheer numbers of sufferers and possibly on the severity of presentation too (if I’m imagining this, I’d be keen to hear the evidence that these regulations ARE ineffective. There is a powerful employer-lead opposition to them, and if they are ineffective, we can sacrifice them without worries, whereas at the moment we are fighting to retain them as “better than nothing”).

So, yes there is a requirement for proactive action from the employer, however he is a liberty to pass the actual DOING of the assessment to any appropriate person. We here recommend that individuals using the workstation complete the assessment themselves and that it is collated by the department. Any outstanding problems can then be taken up with us in the safety office. We are slowly getting compliance and more than lip-service but it is definitely an up-hill struggle. Underfunding is not acceptable as a reason for not doing ANYTHING but may be acceptable in a situation where the cost benefit analysis was very close (i.e. it would cost a lot of money for a very small gain). In fact the costing of properly designed furniture is such that it is likely that if a proper plan were in place to refurbish workstations over time, starting with the worst (from those workstation assessments), then I would expect the HSE to accept this, as long as the risks to users were not unacceptably high.

Given the low level of inspection in this country and the sheer quantity of new H&S legislation coming in every few days, it is probably inevitable that compliance will be employee lead in too many cases. We get most of our information post hoc; despite an active caring H&S team of 5 safety professionals, a director of safety and the active backing of the Vice Chancellor. We proactively safety audit on a 1year/2year cycle depending on the perceived riskiness of the department and STILL we can’t keep up with everything.

What I do believe is that employees should use every structure in their organisation and outside it at need to get such H&S requirements taken seriously. This includes your own Safety Officer (s/he’s probably weltering under a mass of H&S consultative documents with hardly a chance to get his/her head above water – I’ve got 3 on my desk just for Rad Safety alone.) Stick a pin into him/her! Trade Union Safety Reps are often self-selected for their interest in H&S (or alternatively boss-bashing – H&S is useful for this too). They do receive more training than most in H&S and are USUALLY good news. They can “shop” an employer to the HSE and the HSE is obliged then by law to take action. Don’t leave out the HSE or in some cases your local EHO. Why leave them in ignorance? USE every path possible. It’s your health and your life that’s being messed up! 

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