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The health and safety risks of maintaining computer systems

Posted on: November 3, 2023
Keyboard with blue key called 'Safety First'

Computer systems have become an integral part of people’ssdaily lives, both at home and at work. And while the convenience and efficiencies they bring can be hugely beneficial, they can also pose potential health and safety risks. 

It’s important to understand the various hazards associated with computer systems, as well as appropriate measures to help minimise their impact. And this is particularly important in workplaces, where both employers and employees have a responsibility to adhere to health and safety guidelines and ensure a safe working environment.

Common health and safety issues when using computers

Repetitive strain injuries (RSI)

Repetitive strain injury is a term used to describe body pain when it’s caused by repetitive movements. The extensive use of computer equipment, and prolonged periods of typing and mouse-clicking, can increase the risk of RSI, as can using devices with poor ergonomic design, or having poor posture.

According to the NHS, RSI symptoms can include:

  • Pain (which may feel like burning, aching, or throbbing).
  • Stiffness and weakness.
  • Tingling, pins-and-needles, or numbness.
  • Muscle cramps.
  • Swelling.

These symptoms may be felt in the fingers, hands,wrists, forearms, elbows, or shoulders.

Many employers work to prevent repetitive strain injuries by providing training on the importance of correct posture, encouraging regular breaks, and providing employees with ergonomically designed workstations.

Eye strain and visual discomfort

Staring at a computer screen for long periods of time can cause eye strain and visual discomfort. Common symptoms of eye problems can include:

  • dry eyes
  • blurred vision
  • headaches

To reduce eye strain, it is important that display screen equipment (DSE) is positioned at the correct height and distance from the user’s eyes, and it’s also important to take regular screen breaks.

Many employers will also provide regular eye tests – or pay for visits to an optician – to help detect vision problems and ensure corrective measures are taken where needed.

Back pain 

Prolonged sitting in uncomfortable positions can lead to back pain and other physical issues. It’s important to prioritise ergonomics by using adjustable chairs, footrests, and dedicated workstations that can maintain a comfortable position for users. It’s also important to take regular breaks and even engage in stretching exercises to alleviate back pain and prevent long-term musculoskeletal health problems.

Computer health and safety: who is responsible for what?

Government guidelines

The Health and Safety at Work Act outlines the laws around health and safety in the UK. The British Safety Council states that this act is the “primary piece of legislation governing workplace health and safety in Great Britain”, and it puts into law employers’ legal duty to protect the health and safety of their employees.  

There are also the Display Screen Equipment Regulations that require employers to provide suitable workstations for DSE users, and protect their staff from any health risks associated with PC and desktop computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones, computer monitors, and so on.

Finally, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the UK provides occupational health and safety guidelines and resources to help employers manage the health and safety risks associated with computer systems.

These guidelines cover topics such as:

  • workstation ergonomics
  • risk assessments
  • the importance of regular breaks

Employers are required to familiarise themselves with these laws and guidelines, and to incorporate them into their internal safety policies and practices.

Employer responsibilities

As outlined in law, employers must provide a safe working environment and implement safety policies. This extends to health and safety during computer use, and includes actions such as:

  • arranging for regular eyesight tests
  • maintaining electrical equipment in a safe condition
  • conducting regular and thorough risk assessments to identify potential hazards, evaluate the likelihood and severity of harm, and implement appropriate control measures
  • providing adequate and appropriate computer workstations.

User responsibilities

To minimise health risks when using computer systems and other forms of digital technology, it’s important that users adopt a best practice approach. 

“Taking the time to adjust your working area to fit your body and needs not only helps you prevent health issues, but also creates a comfortable and enjoyable space,” reports Forbes in an article on office ergonomics.

Areas of best practice include:

  • Taking regular breaks. Computer users should remember to take short, frequent breaks away from computer screen work. This helps reduce the strain on their eyes and muscles.
  • Maintaining good posture. It’s important that computer users sit in a neutral and comfortable position, with their back supported and feet flat on the floor or on a footrest.
  • Using ergonomic tools. Computer users should use ergonomically designed chairs, accessories, and adjustable desks to customise their workstations to suit their needs, and ensure that displays are at eye level. This is also true when using mobile phones or other handheld devices.
  • Getting regular eyesight tests. Computer users should arrange for regular eyesight tests to detect any vision problems and get any appropriate corrective measures as soon as required. It’s also important to take care of eye health while working, whether it’s by adjusting screen brightness, or using a lamp to improve and enhance desk lighting.
  • Completing relevant training. Any employer-provided training and information on correct ergonomics, posture, and the importance of taking breaks should be completed regularly.

Launch a new career in computer science 

Work with computer systems in a fast-growing field by studying the 100% online MSc Computer Science at Keele University. This flexible, part-time programme has been designed for ambitious individuals who may not have studied computer science previously, as well as computer science professionals who want an academic qualification to accelerate their career progression in information technology.

You’ll develop and extend the practical skills you need for designing, building, deploying, and evaluating software and computer applications in a variety of contexts. You will also learn programming and web languages including Python, Java, and XML, work with mobile apps, and learn to develop modern software systems and applications.

Key areas of study include:

  • the fundamentals of computer science
  • design and programming
  • user interaction (UI) design
  • statistical data analytics and databases
  • software engineering
  • web technologies and security
  • advanced programming techniques.
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