Twenty years ago on 1 January 1993, the UK implemented six wide ranging health & safety regulations under the Health & Safety at Work Act (1974). The initial 1974 Act had outlined what employers should be doing to provide a safe environment for their workers but in the intervening years, work and workplaces had changed (e.g. with the introduction of computers) and the reality was that many workplaces still had shortcomings. Dubbed the ‘Six Pack’, the 1993 regulations made clearer duties in relation to some activities (e.g. computer work, manual handling) and gave more detail and guidance to help employers protect the health & safety of their staff.
The Six Pack also represented the UK’s interpretation of a set of European Directives designed to protect workers across Europe. They set a minimum standard so that companies within the EU could not capitalise on cost savings by disregarding health and safety practices in their workplaces.
Dave O’Neill, Chief Executive of the Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors believes that the Six Pack has contributed to safer and healthier workplaces and promoted the value of applying ergonomics principles.
“As a result, both employers and employees know much more about safer working practices and what has to be done in the workplace by both parties to achieve this. More could still be done to combat stress and improve overall employee wellbeing. And there will always be some difficult situations which will require compromise solutions,” he said.
“An ergonomics approach is holistic and will address cognitive and organisational factors as well as the physical aspects of the workplace. As well as having potential health benefits, the application of ergonomics to the workplace can also help to ensure that workers are able to work more easily, perform better and be more productive.”
For ergonomists/human factors professionals who have been practising the past 20 years, they have witnessed significant changes. Scottish ergonomist Margaret Hanson, a Fellow of the IEHF 1993 writes:
I began my career in 1993, the same year that the Six Pack was introduced, so have ‘grown up’ with them, and their application has formed a large part of the advice I have given organisations over the years. My work has particularly been around helping companies comply with the DSE Regulations, the Manual Handling Operations Regulations and the Personal Protective Equipment Regulations in order to optimise workplace health.
The introduction of some parts of the Six Pack, particularly the DSE Regulations, was in response to a recognised need that was driven by technological changes – the need to prevent health problems associated with the rapid and wide introduction of computers, which changed the way we work significantly and irrevocably. It is hard to believe now, but only a few years before the DSE Regulation’s introduction I was faced with an O level computer exam paper, where the first question was “What is a mouse?” quickly followed by “What is a window?” I couldn’t answer either question!
Our acceptance of computers in our homes, workplaces, vehicles and in public places shows how far we have travelled in 20 years. I believe it was right that legislation which aimed to ensure that computer users could work comfortably and without risk to their health was introduced at that time. I would suggest that the regulations (as well as the customer demand resulting from better understanding) resulted in better furniture being designed, with almost all office chairs, screens and keyboards designed to meet the requirements of the DSE Regulations. I think that employees’ expectations of adjustable chairs, adjustable and clear screens, adjustable and easy to use software, as well as an improving knowledge of how to use these adjustments has helped avoid significant health problems.
However, a glance around any office will reveal that even with all these adjustments, computer users adopt poor postures – very often leaning forward to view the screen or stretching forward to the keyboard while resting their forearms on the desk. There still remains a significant challenge to educate people not only in how to use the adjustments on the furniture and equipment, but also in good posture. Significant postural improvements could also arise if people were able to touch type; in terms of reducing future musculoskeletal risk I think there is a strong case for it to be taught in schools. Furthermore, while computing capability has increased significantly, and the importance of usability is increasingly recognised, not all software is well designed, and this can have a significant impact on users’ stress and posture (e.g. requirement for mouse use).
Clearly, the wide introduction of laptops, tablets, touch screens, mobile and smart phones and other hand held devices presents new challenges related to postures, means of activation, location of use and stress. The increased amount of home working, mobile working and hot desking also introduces new challenges. These are not explicitly addressed by the DSE regulations and associated guidance. However, there is a demand from organisations for advice to give to their employees to help them work comfortably in these non-standard situations; I have worked with BT to produce some guidance on comfortable use of mobile devices (http://www.insight.bt.com/en/features/get_fit_for_mobile_working).
Inevitably, as technology has advanced significantly, some aspects of the DSE Regulations now appear out dated. The requirement to control noise produced by computer equipment, which was written when dot-matrix printers were common, is no longer such an issue, nor generally, are reflections on a computer screen – with flat screens thankfully screen filters are no longer required.
The way companies undertake assessments has also changed, with few now contracting out standard DSE assessments to external organisations, due to the use of effective on-line self-assessments, with a supporting layer of expert assessments if required.
Looking back to where we have come from I’m sure the DSE Regulations have prevented significant numbers of people having to work with inadequate equipment. Looking forward, I believe the guidance associated with the DSE Regulations could go further, but of course it will always be behind the new generations of technology. As ergonomists we need to use the DSE Regulations as a framework for support, but also apply our ergonomics knowledge to the evolving technologies and ways of working to ensure the health of those who use them.
For more accounts, see www.ergonomics.org.uk > Predicting risk is central to prevention.