The move comes as computer manufacturers in the US face a growing number of damages claims from firms whose employees have won compensation for Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI) after using computer keyboards.
The manufacturers believe this to be a responsible move, but it is already being interpreted as defensive action, with suggestions that labelling may be an attempt to strengthen legal protection against litigation.
Even the Computing Services Association, which counts hardware manufacturers among its membership, was sceptical yesterday. 'The companies involved may have been advised to do this by their legal departments rather than their marketing people,' Rob Wirszycz, CSA marketing director, said yesterday.
He was not aware of similar moves by any other manufacturer, but said there were signs of increasing claims against computer companies from people complaining of RSI and from their employers. 'This is not a very positive move at all, although it is entirely understandable.'
Keyboards from Compaq Computer, based in Houston, Texas, will carry the new labels within months, following a court ruling in February in the US, which the company won, but on the grounds that there was insufficient knowledge about the risks of RSI at the time equipment was sold.
Microsoft, the US software company, insists its new labels will carry 'tips' for users, and are not intended as warnings. The company is to sell its first keyboards from early next month, and says these are designed to reduce the risk of RSI. Microsoft's Natural Keyboard is split and contoured, with slanted keys and wrist rests, to be a better fit to human hands.
Other companies have been selling such ergonomic keyboards for almost two years.
Peter Stuart, of ICL, said his company has sold a sloping, adjustable keyboard as standard for the past year. But he said the company had no plans for warning labels because a customer's immediate reaction would be to ask what was wrong with the keyboard.
Tim Gopsill, RSI officer for the National Union of Journalists, said this was 'another example of companies doing the least they can with the primary objective being to stave off litigation'.
The NUJ has 50 outstanding cases against employers. The Trades Union Congress estimates there were 200,000 cases of job-related 'upper limb injuries' last year.