Today’s DSE users have more autonomy, but more complex tasks, often with unfamiliar, inadequate or badly selected software.
The Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations (the DSE regulations) have not been changed since they were introduced in 1992. The intended audience then were described as ‘DSE users’ and included people like secretaries, employed to type up hand-written notes or dictation tapes from managers. DSE users had little autonomy over their work, but had simple tasks to do with familiar software.
Relationship between DSE regulations and MSDS
The green line in figure 1 shows the good news: the DSE regulations appear to have done their job. The proportion of people suffering from musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) at work has gone down. However, the red line shows that over the same period, self-reported work-related stress, depression and anxiety has increased.
Figure 1: Rates per 100,000 workers of work-related MSD and Stress
In the 1990s, figures suggested around 3000 workers per 100,000 reported work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). Current estimates are around 1,400 cases per 100,000 workers. That’s the good news story. Unfortunately, over the same period, self-reported work-related stress, depression and anxiety has increased. In 1990 fewer than 1000 cases per 100,000 workers were reported. In the past few years, this has increased to over 2400 cases per 100,000 workers.
So while MSDs have been reducing, stress-related illnesses have been increasing. It is time to take another look at the requirements of the 1992 DSE regulations.
The Schedule to the DSE regulations sets out the minimum requirements for computer workstations. People most often focus on the physical requirements - on the selection and setting up of chairs, desks, mice, screens, room conditions and so on. While these are important, there is another aspect of the DSE regulations that is too often omitted, and that can have a greater impact on our wellbeing.
Five steps when selecting software
The last part of the DSE schedule relates to the interface between the computer and the operator. It is a requirement that when an employer is “designing, selecting, commissioning and modifying software” they make sure that the software is suitable for the task, easy to use and adapted to the knowledge and experience of the user.
Think about it. If your chair is badly adjusted, you can re-adjust it. Even if you had to work at a dining room table during lockdown, you can use cushions and books to adjust your workstation, and take more frequent breaks to compensate for a less ideal set-up. But what do you do when you’ve been told to produce a newsletter, and the only software you have is Word? Each time you paste a picture in, it behaves unpredictably, and you just can’t get the layout right. Or you need to create a system for tracking and chasing health and safety actions, and all you have is a stack of risk assessments in Word, some paper checklists, your email account and a spreadsheet for tracking the actions? Each time you cut and paste actions from the Word documents and emails, you have to change formatting, and send another email to let people know the spreadsheet has changed. More training or more time might help, but the result can be increased stress and anxiety trying to make software do tasks they are not designed for.
If you want to reduce this source of stress, improve productivity (and meet the requirements of the DSE regulations), consider these five steps when selecting or commissioning software:
- Talk to the users early in the process to find out what they need. What tasks do they do, when and how?
- Create a clear shopping list of requirements before you start looking at the market. This should be informed by business needs, and user needs.
- Once you’ve narrowed the field down, don’t rely on a demo, or worse on a video and some screen shots. If a vendor isn’t prepared to let you have a play with the system, they don’t trust their own product.
- Find out how much after sales service you will get. Will there be additional costs to make any modifications? Do you need to consider the cost of training staff internally to manage changes?
- If you’re happy with a system, before you sign on the dotted line select some representative users and get them to try some of the different tasks they need to do. How much training will they need to be able to do their job? Does the system satisfy or frustrate?
None of this focus on usability diminishes the importance of physical ergonomics. People spending hours at a computer each day are entitled to comfortable furniture and appropriate peripherals. But as work becomes ever more complex, and people spend less time at a fixed desk in an office, they must be given software that won’t add to the increasing rates of workplace stress.
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