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November 25, 2009

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Office safety- In the eyes of the law

Jim Lythgow reminds duty-holders of the importance of protecting employees’ eyesight, particularly in light of pending legislation on incorporating eye examinations into driving tests.

Looking after the eyesight of employees who work for prolonged periods in front of a computer screen is not only a legal requirement but also makes good business sense. There is no evidence that display screen equipment (DSE) and visual display units (VDU) can cause disease or permanent damage to eyes, but long spells of use can lead to tired eyes and discomfort, which, in turn, will impact on the individual’s concentration and productivity.

The 1992 Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations (amended in 2002) require employers to provide a basic level of eyecare for screen users. There is also an entitlement to further tests at regular intervals — the optometrist doing the first test can recommend when the next should be. Employers only have to pay for glasses if special ones — for example, prescribed for the distance at which the screen is viewed — are needed and normal ones cannot be used.

Any member of staff that uses DSE or a VDU can request that their employer pays for them to have an eye examination, and glasses, if they are necessary. But research has revealed that the DSE Regulations are misunderstood by both employers and employees, with the result that many businesses are spending unnecessary money on eyecare because of a general lack of understanding and consequent low take-up of schemes.

A recent survey of 187 employers1 found that while the majority claimed to be familiar with the legislation, many were unsure as to what employees were entitled to. Just over half of those companies questioned (53 per cent) said they contribute to the cost of eye tests and glasses for VDU use, but 13 per cent fund the eye test only, and 5 per cent insist that their employees meet all the costs themselves. This is worrying, given that the Regulations clearly state that the employer must pay the full costs of an eye examination and for the provision of basic glasses, where required.

Keeping costs down

In reality, the legislation is simple and the solutions available to help businesses fulfil their duties are easily accessible and cost-effective. For example, not everyone using a computer screen will require glasses, but for those who do, corporate schemes are now available from opticians that offer eye examinations and glasses for as little as £17 per person, so there is no need to pay over the odds.
Everyone should be aware that if they need glasses to do their job properly they are entitled to them. In the spirit of staff efficiency, it makes perfect sense.

With computers and screens of all kinds infiltrating so much of the office workplace, being able to cover mandatory care in the most straightforward and economical manner possible has to be a priority.
Another common — and potentially costly — misunderstanding relates to the choice of eyecare provider. Many employers believe that employees are free to decide which optician they go to. In fact, it is up to the employer to appoint the eyecare provider, and it is important that they do so. By ensuring that all staff use the same provider — just as they would all sign up to the same medical insurance scheme — the company will get the most cost-efficient deal.

Many organisations are now making use of voucher schemes for their staff, as they provide the greatest possible transparency, equality of care for staff, and cost effectiveness. 

Of course, sight correction devices are not the only way to safeguard the eyesight of VDU users. The correct workstation set-up — height and angle of screen, display settings, lighting, etc. — is also important, as is taking regular breaks away from the screen. Even people with nothing wrong with their eyesight can find they get headaches when using a computer for too long. Shifting gaze from screen to keyboard means eyes have to change focus quickly, resulting in eye strain.

Contact-lens wearers may find they struggle more with their lenses when using a screen. The heat generated by computers and other equipment can make the air seem drier, and some may find this uncomfortable. Those that have this problem but do not want to change to wearing glasses may find that the simple act of blinking more often, or using tear-substitute drops, can help. Where the air is dry, employers can help by taking steps to increase the humidity.

Eyes on the road

While computer users are an obvious group of workers requiring eyecare provision, an often-overlooked group is those who drive for work. It is a worrying truth that most companies in the UK fail to ensure that drivers in their employment can see clearly enough to drive safely.

Until now, there has been no legal imperative for industry to make sure drivers comply with minimum sight requirements. As long as drivers are able to pass the mandatory sight test during their driving test, i.e. the ability to read a number plate from 20.5m, they do not have to prove the fitness of their eyesight ever again. But, as most people’s eyesight changes considerably as they age, especially after they reach about 40, it is inevitable that a large proportion of the country’s driving population cannot see as well as they should.

But this alarming situation is about to change. Legislation passed in the European Parliament in 20062 is set to be implemented in member states in 2011. The current proposal is that holders of commercial driving licences will have to have their eyes tested every five years, and holders of private licences every 10-15 years. Shorter periods between eye tests can be applied for new drivers, those over 50, or for specific medical reasons. All applicants for the new EU driving licences will need to undergo a visual acuity test, which will include distance acuity (monocular and binocular), visual fields, and a red/green colour test.

The directive does not set minimum standards for vision, and the coded requirement for vision correction on the licence means that anyone stopped by the Police will be identifiable as needing corrective lenses.

The changes are expected to lead to fewer accidents, reduced insurance costs, and earlier detection of such eye conditions as cataracts and glaucoma. The member states have until 2013 to translate the directive into national law, although some, such as Denmark and Switzerland (although not an EU member, the directive will also apply there), already implement some of the requirements.

Britain’s business community does not always embrace EU directives with enthusiasm or warmth, but there is an appetite for legislation that will make drivers’ working lives safer. Many employers are concerned that some of their staff may be driving during the course of their work when their eyesight is not good enough to do so.

Having an eyecare policy to test the eyesight of all employees, and which is clearly communicated to the workforce so that they are aware of their own duties and rights, is therefore crucial. While misunderstanding the DSE Regulations can be costly financially, not providing adequate care for a VDU user or driver’s eyesight could prove far more costly to personal safety. The message is clear: it pays to provide good eyecare for staff.  

References
1    Specsavers Corporate Eyecare surveyed 187 employers representing 448,000 employees last month
2    Directive 2006/126/EEC on driving licences replaced directive 91/439 on 19 January 2009 — http://ec.europa.eu/transport/road_safety/behavior/driving_licence_en.htm

Further information
Copies of the following guides can be obtained free of charge by e-mailing [email protected]:

  • Research: Employers’ interpretation of the DSE Regulations
  • Guide to the DSE Regulations
  • Guide to driving legislation

A free ‘toolbox talk’ on DSE safety is available from Barbour as part of its series of informal, easy-to-use training tools on a variety of key health and safety topics. To access the DSE PowerPoint presentation, click here. For DSE handouts (which include Q&A pages, diagrams and illustrations), click here.


Jim Lythgow is director of strategic alliances at Specsavers Corporate Eyecare.

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