Alex Wilkins: More than ‘a bit of backache’, how badly set-up workstations harm workers and employers alike

At first glance, most office work seems pretty safe. It can hardly compare with construction work or policing for risk, after all. But evidence is mounting that office work can take a toll on the body and cause far more ill-health than you might suspect. In particular, badly-designed working areas containing display screen equipment can cost office workers, and their employers, dearly. And that applies wherever that work space is located.

With long-term work from home arrangements now common, and likely to become more so if flexible working rights are enhanced by the UK Government, HR professionals are faced with a problem, specific to the digital age. How does a company carry out its health and safety-related duty of care to a worker, when that worker is not on their premises?

For make no mistake about it, whether a worker is sitting in an office or at their own kitchen table, their employer has the same legal obligations around health and safety.

Recent surveys have shown that the average office worker will spend between four and nine hours each day sitting at their desk, which equates to two sedentary months each year. That can lead to all sorts of health problems, from minor aches and pains to an elevated risk of obesity and heart disease.

And, alarmingly, recent research shows that a staggering 34 per cent of home-based workers are too scared to ask their employers for help with setting up their working space at home.

Businesses have a duty of care to make sure their workers are not operating in dangerous or harmful environments – and contrary to popular belief a badly set up working area, even an innocuous-looking desk with a computer, can be a very dangerous place for workers and employers alike.

What are the dangers of a badly set-up work area?

Ergonomics, which is the design of work spaces, has attracted great attention as the effects of poor workplace set-up have become apparent.

Most people know that a badly arranged display screen, desk and/or chair can cause musculo-skeletal problems. Indeed, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is so conscious of the risks that stem from desk-bound work that they have issued specific guidance for workers and employers.

But only few people realise just how much pain and unhappiness those problems can create.

For a backache or trapped nerves may be just the beginning. A worker who develops minor niggles, aches and pains caused by their work space will probably find that if nothing is done, the problem worsens over time. As the pain or restriction bleeds out of their working day and into the rest of their life, they can suffer insomnia, stress and even burn-out. Add to that the desk-bound workers’ increased risk of obesity, heart disease and other health problems associated with a sedentary lifestyle, and you have a recipe for disaster.

All of these are serious medical problems that blight lives and for which an employer may be liable.

Even if the worker does not seek compensation for their suffering, the business will likely suffer too. Pain, lack of sleep and constant stress do not make workers happy or productive. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that a well-designed working area makes workers more satisfied with their job and, it seems reasonable to assume, more committed and productive.

At the heart of this lies a key problem. Too many workers are trying to fit into work spaces that were designed with the ‘average’ worker in mind. In other words, many businesses have got ergonomics completely wrong. What they be doing (not least in order to comply with employment law) is make sure that the workplace has been adapted to suit the specific person using it.

So, what can – and should – businesses do about this?

First, the law: what should employers do? The law is pretty clear. Under the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 employers must risk-assess all display screen equipment areas (yes, even those in workers’ own homes), reduce risks and provide workers with the training and information they need to protect their own health.

In all cases, but perhaps particularly in the case of remote workers, this is much easier if there is an open culture where health and safety issues can be discussed without fear of reprisal. In such places, workers are not afraid to report the earliest signs of trouble and can work easily alongside the employer to solve any problems. As we have seen, at the moment many workers are afraid to report their concerns, and this is a dangerous situation for everyone.

While there is no ‘silver bullet’ for creating an open workplace where dialogue is the norm, being aware of its value is a good start. And if companies, even those working towards such a culture, can ensure their workers have high-quality, video-based DSE training that is accessible from any location and is truly engaging, they are on track to make life much more comfortable for themselves – and for their workforce.





Alex is the head of business development at iHASCO Ltd, a market-leading provider of Health & Safety and HR Compliance eLearning.

Alex is certified in Applied Health & Safety and is responsible for developing partnerships with external companies and looking after major accounts at iHASCO.