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Computer (DSE) User

RSI is by no means confined to keyboard workers but there can be no doubt that the increased prevalence of these painful and sometimes disabling conditions is related to the huge rise in computer use since the late 1980s.

What are the risks?
There are many actions associated with computer use which, if left uncorrected, may lead to RSI-type conditions in some individuals. Some of these actions can be avoided by better workstation or equipment design. However many computer users will also need to make the effort to change their computing style.

Many computer users have a tendency to type with their wrists resting on the desk in front of the keyboard. This can compress the space available for the median nerve to the hand, leading to carpal tunnel syndrome. Using a soft wrist rest may help, but they have their disadvantages as they may actually discourage computer users from adopting a better typing style. It is generally best to type with the hands hovering above the keyboard, parallel with the arms (i.e. with wrists straight).

There are also risks associated with using the mouse. Many people use the mouse in the same way as the keyboard, with the wrist leaning against the desk and all the movement pivoting from the wrist. In addition, the design of the standard mouse that comes with most computers involves awkward gripping movements. The design of most keyboards means that the mouse has to be placed too far to the side, meaning the arm has to maintain a stretched posture. A better way of using the mouse is to hold the mouse lightly and make smooth movements involving the whole arm.

Other risks of poorly-designed workstations include having the chair, desk or monitor too high or too low relative to each other. This can mean that users have to hunch their shoulders to reach the keyboard, or bend their head up or down to look at the monitor. Maintaining awkward static postures like this for extended periods during a working day can cause muscle strain and contribute towards RSI-type conditions. The whole workstation, including chairs and desks should be adjusted for individual employees. It is not difficult to see how practices such as hot-desking, sharing workstations and the widespread use of laptops make it even more difficult for employees to work in the right conditions.

Many computer workers may not realise they are not taking enough breaks. Recent advice suggests taking a thirty second break every five minutes, plus a five minute break every half hour or so. Software packages are available to prompt users to take breaks. These packages are tailored according to the needs of the individual and can even freeze the keyboard, forcing the user to take a break.

What can be done to help?
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has published guidelines to employers on how to comply with the display screen equipment regulations. This guidance is available in the ‘Advice’ section of this website.

Workstation assessments
Larger organisations may have a Health and Safety or Occupational Health representative who will carry out workstation assessments. Particularly in larger organisations, assessors may spend very little time with each individual. If that individual is already experiencing problems, a more detailed assessment may be necessary, involving technological alternatives to the standard computer equipment. If the skills do not already exist in the company, they may choose to bring in a private consultant ergonomist or physiotherapist, but there are other options: Abilitynet is a charity originally set up by IBM. They focus more on get-round technology (alternatives to standard computer equipment, but also may look as desks, chairs etc too. You can visit them at one of their local centres or they will come to your workplace. There is a charge for their services.

Access to Work is a scheme to help anyone with an illness, condition or disability overcome barriers to employment. They will come to your place of work. There is no charge for an assessment and they will pay a substantial amount towards the cost of any adjustments they recommend. You can see them whether you are job seeking, in work or self-employed. If you are self-employed they will pay 100% of the cost of adjustments.

Hot-desking/sharing workstations
If hot-desking is practiced, it is worth investing in equipment which can be easily adjusted. One company fitted out its entire workforce with adjustable desks, only to find employees weren’t bothering because each time a desk had to be adjusted all the computer equipment had to moved off first. Desks which can be adjusted without being cleared first are available – another of the reasons why it is helpful to consult an agency such as Access To Work as they should be able to advise on the whole range of equipment available, as well as contribute to the cost of any equipment for a specific individual with RSI.

Click to download factsheet Download RSIA Factsheet (No cost computer tips)
Click to download factsheet Download RSIA Factsheet (Windows Shortcut Keys)
Click to download factsheet Download RSIA Factsheet (Correct and incorrect workstation setup factsheet)
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