Display screen equipment: health and safety rules for lockdown

Out-Law Analysis | 09 Apr 2020 | 4:06 pm | 5 min. read

Employers should review their compliance with rules regarding display screen equipment (DSE) afresh given the shift to remote working in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

As with obligations in relation to the health, safety and wellbeing of workers more generally, the rules governing DSE continue to apply despite the current global crises.

The requirements around DSE

The use of Display Screen Equipment (DSE) within the modern workplace is often taken for granted but specific obligations in relation to its use are placed on employers by the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 (the DSE Regulations) with the aim of protecting workers from the health risks associated with DSE.

With many organisations now having a substantial proportion of their workforce working remotely at home, with perhaps the frequency and length of DSE usage having increased and in a different environment, and with employers having to adapt to this change quickly in a business environment subject to constant change, it raises potential issues of compliance with the DSE Regulations.

In essence the DSE Regulations require an employer to:

  • undertake a DSE workstation assessment for "users" – that is those who use DSE as part of their daily work, continuously for an hour or more;
  • reduce risks, including making sure workers take breaks from DSE work and do something different;
  • provide an eye and eyesight test if a worker asks for one and provide suitable corrective appliances should a need be identified;
  • provide training and information for workers

Consideration should be given to the whole workstation as well as the job being carried out there and any special requirements of the particular worker involved. Assessments may be carried out by a variety of means including face-to-face with a competent assessor or via a self assessment written form and should be undertaken whenever a new workstation is set up; a new user starts work; a change is made to an existing workstation or the way it’s used or when users complain of pain or discomfort.

Incorrect use of DSE and reducing risks

Incorrect use of DSE or poorly designed workstations or work environments can lead to pain in necks, shoulders, backs, arms, wrists and hands as well as fatigue and eye strain. The causes may not always be obvious. Measures to reduce risks include the correct desk set up with suitable seating, appropriate screen size and position, reducing glare from windows, and the provision of auxiliary aids such as document holders and foot stools. There is no legal guidance on how long and how often breaks should be, but five to ten mins every hour is a good rule of thumb.

Training and information can be given in face to face sessions or more typically these days as part of a combined assessment and training online module. Advice on good posture; adjusting chairs and desks, for example; arranging desk space; screen adjustment and lighting; breaks and changes of activity should be included together with information on reporting problems.

View of the regulator

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has said: "There is no increased risk from DSE work for those working at home temporarily. So in that situation employers do not need to do home workstation assessments." Quite what that means in the context of the situation we find ourselves in now is not totally clear. The concept of‘temporary’ in the context of home working is not defined.

Bridges Kevin

Kevin Bridges

Partner, Head of Health and Safety

Employers would be well advised now to take steps to comply with the DSE Regulations, particularly as even short term incorrect usage of DSE can have the potential to create longer term health problems. 

It is as yet unclear how long the period of 'lockdown' will last in the UK, and whether remote working will be classed as 'temporary' will be an open question as more time passes.  Rather than risk debates on such semantics employers would be well advised now to take steps to comply with the DSE Regulations, particularly as even short term incorrect usage of DSE can have the potential to create longer term health problems.

Actions for employers

Employers should provide their displaced workers with advice on completing their own basic assessment at home. Employers will be unable to complete any of these assessments themselves since it is unlikely to be seen as an "essential" reason for travel. Workers should be encouraged to follow simple steps to reduce the risks from display screen work, such as

  • breaking up long spells of DSE work with rest breaks – at least five minutes every hour – or changes in activity;
  • avoiding awkward, static postures by regularly changing position;
  • getting up and moving or doing stretching exercises;
  • avoiding eye fatigue by changing focus or blinking from time to time.

Employers should also ensure a system is in place for homeworkers to report the outcomes of their risk assessment to their employers and that any necessary follow-up actions are taken – the need to record the assessment may depend on how short-term a basis the employee is working from home.

Where workers normally use specific equipment adapted for their particular needs, employers should try to meet those needs where possible, during this period, for example, by allowing workers to take this equipment home or making suggestions for creating a more suitable working environment. Whilst employers will be responsible for the suitability and maintenance of any equipment provided for homeworking, for example portable appliance testing, employees are responsible for the electrical supply to such equipment.

Employers should give additional consideration to homeworkers using portable DSE, such as laptops or tablet computers, for prolonged periods. While not true in every case, the design of portable DSE, from smaller keyboards and lower screen positions for instance, can make it more difficult to achieve a comfortable working posture. This should be addressed in any information or training given to homeworkers about conducting their own risk assessment, and employers should also encourage homeworkers to take more frequent breaks where they are at a greater risk as a result of using certain portable DSE.

Broader issues of health and safety and wellbeing

Employers' general duties to take reasonable care for the health safety and wellbeing of their workers and others are not relaxed during the current crises, so employers must make sure that their risk assessments are reviewed now to take account of the changes brought about by Covid-19 and the government's response to it. Employers found not to have done so will be in breach of their obligations and may well face enforcement action. Lack of supervision due to homeworking may well create a greater risk which must be accounted for, as may difficulties in undertaking risk assessments.

Employers should also remember their obligations extend not only to the physical safety and health of their workers; their mental wellbeing must also be considered. With many unfamiliar with remote working, isolation can be a factor. Employers should maintain regular contact with workers and encourage team support. Apart from the obvious benefits for the individual, the longer term benefits in productivity on a return to "business as usual" should not be underestimated. Health, safety and wellbeing obligations are not suspended during the current pandemic. On the contrary, they remain in place, albeit for some the emphasis may have shifted temporarily.