Britain is stubbornly resisting measures to reduce computer injury, risking health and output. Clare Newsome reports
Britain has one of the laxest sets of rules in Europe governing the use of PCs and other office equipment. But there is no sign of their being tightened, despite research suggesting that technology can cause damage which outweighs productivity gains.

UK legislation on computers in the workplace, which becomes compulsory in 1996, was forced on Britain by a European directive. True to form, the Government has opted for the minimum standards allowed, even though the directive is itself weaker than rules already in place in Scandinavia, where the leading ergonomic research is done.

According to the regulations, British companies must issue employees with adjustable stands and chairs, keyboards separate from system units and footrests for staff who want them. But the "guidance" on good practice, laced with a liberal dose of scepticism about the reported harmful effects of computer equipment, is inadequate.

Eighty per cent of employees are bothered by VDUs, and that does not mean just the odd headache. A report published by the Swedish Work Environment Fund established beyond doubt that emissions from monitors affect mercury- amalgam tooth fillings.

In normal conditions, the amalgam releases small amounts of mercury vapour, but exposure to certain screens causes higher, toxic, levels to be released.

Electrical equipment may not seem harmful (excluding the notorious stomach- turning coffee machine). But put it all together and the background electrical field in your office suddenly reaches particularly high levels, with "hot spots" not just around the equipment being used but in the spaghetti of cables found under most office desks.

Staff in offices with high fields are more likely to develop skin problems, regular headaches and general fatigue from these emissions. Many countries have written requirements for low-emission equipment into ergonomic legislation.

But the UK does not. "It is not necessary, from the standpoint of limiting risk to human health, for employers or workers to take any action to reduce radiation levels or to attempt to measure emissions," the regulations state.

Another concern is the increasing number of repetitive strain injury (RSI) cases linked to use of a computer mouse - a device many now use thanks to predominance of graphical software such as Windows.

A recent study at the University of California at Berkeley showed the average user performs 10,000-80,000 mouse clicks a week, with users of more mouse-intensive applications such as graphics software being the most at risk from resultant discomfort, even injury, to their fingers, thumbs, wrists, elbows or shoulders. The UK regulations do not even mention mice.

Other less obvious ergonomic factors - noise, lighting and software design - are also becoming of increasing concern in other countries, but are only briefly mentioned in the UK regulations.

What will it take for the Government to adapt a tougher stance? If not ergonomic evidence, perhaps economic truths.

The United States is considering the introduction of a strict set of rules governing PC use in the workplace after research by the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration revealed computer-related injuries cost US industry the equivalent of £60bn a year in lost working hours.

It's this kind of evidence which blows apart Tory arguments about the prohibitive cost of implementing ergonomic legislation into places of business - the truth is it costs a lot more if you don't.

What makes the Government's position particularly bizarre is that British computer manufacturers may be forced to produce more ergonomic designs for export anyway.

The US is under pressure to follow the Scandinavian lead - and if it does, all PC makers will have to design their machines to be more people- friendly or face the loss of their biggest market.

It will be a sad indictment of UK policy if manufacturers of the equipment under scrutiny are shipping sound machines around the world while saving the older stuff for Britain - to be used by an increasingly uncomfortable and decreasingly competitive workforce.

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