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June 24, 2024

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Do your employees use laptops on their laps? Here’s why they shouldn’t

Laptops have become an integral part of working lives, says Adam Clarke, Managing Director at Praxis42 as he discusses the risks associated with laptops and provides practical guidelines for safe and effective use.

Heat exposure

laptopLaptop components, such as the CPU and GPU, produce heat during operation. Manufacturers incorporate cooling systems, including fans and heat sinks, to manage this heat. However, systems rely on adequate airflow, which can be compromised when a laptop is placed on a soft surface like a lap.

When placed directly on the lap, the heat from the laptop can become uncomfortable. Prolonged exposure to this heat can lead to skin burns especially if the skin is exposed to high temperatures regularly. In rare cases laptop burn of this kind can even lead to skin cancer.

Ergonomic issues

When people use a laptop on their lap, they are more likely to sit in a hunched position with the screen lower than eye level. This posture strains their neck and shoulders and puts pressure on their spine. The downward gaze needed to view the screen places significant stress on the cervical spine, leading to discomfort and potential long-term damage.

The lack of ergonomic support when using a laptop on a soft surface like a lap means the laptop is often unstable, leading to further strain on the back and neck muscles as the user adjusts their position to maintain balance.

Also, using a laptop on the lap often involves awkward wrist and hand positions, which can contribute to repetitive strain injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis.

Musculoskeletal disorders currently account for 27% of work-related ill health. As well as causing chronic pain and discomfort, these issues can lead to mobility limitations that affect a person’s entire life.

Further reading: Managing DSE remotely and trends in health problems post pandemic

Possible health risks from EMF radiation

The underside of a laptop emits between 20 and 60 milligauss (mG) of EMF radiation. The older the laptop, the higher the level of EMF radiation.

EMF radiation from a laptop is non-ionizing radiation, which is generally believed not to pose a significant health risk. However, exposure to non-ionising EMF radiation has been found to impact health and studies are ongoing.

Concerningly, colorectal cancer (colon cancer) is rising rapidly amongst young adults. It is the first cause of cancer death in men and the second in women under 50. Twenty years ago, colon cancer was the fourth cause of cancer deaths.

The reason for the increase in colon cancer is unknown, but Devra Davis, PhD, Founder and President of the Environmental Health Trust, believes it is attributable, at least in part, to using laptops on laps.

Possible links have also been identified between ionizing radiation and birth defects and infertility. There are ongoing studies into the significant increase in male infertility over the past 20 years, and ionizing radiation is one of the factors being investigated.

Eye strain

Laptops used on the lap are more prone to screen glare and reflections from surrounding light sources because they are balanced in a low and often unstable position. This glare can cause the user to squint or strain their eyes as they try to see the screen clearly.

Screen glare can lead to headaches, dry eyes, eyestrain and blurred vision.

Reduced productivity

Using a laptop on the lap can reduce an employee’s productivity due to the discomfort and poor posture it encourages.

The constant need to adjust positions to alleviate discomfort further interrupts concentration and workflow. Each adjustment, no matter how small, breaks the user’s focus, making it more difficult to sustain deep, uninterrupted periods of productivity.

The awkward angle and instability of a laptop on the lap can make typing more difficult and less efficient, leading to slower work and increased frustration.

Damage to the laptop

When placed on a lap, soft surfaces can block laptop vents, restricting airflow and causing the laptop to overheat. This overheating can degrade critical hardware components such as the motherboard, battery and hard drive.

Overheating also affects the battery, causing it to degrade faster, reducing its lifespan, and in extreme cases, leading to swelling or fire hazards. Frequent overheating can result in more rapid battery drain and frequent charging cycles, accelerating battery wear and reducing overall battery life.

The risk of physical damage also increases when using a laptop on the lap. Sudden movements or lapses in attention can cause the laptop to slip and fall, potentially cracking the screen, damaging the casing, or affecting internal components leading to data loss.

How can laptops be used safely?

Here are some guidelines that can be shared with employees to make sure laptops are used safely:

Prevent overheating

Avoid using your laptop on your lap or soft surfaces like beds or cushions, as these can block ventilation and cause overheating.

Keep the laptop’s vents clear of dust by regularly cleaning them with compressed air. Use a cooling pad if necessary to enhance airflow.

Maintain distance

Keep the laptop at least 20 cm away from your body, as recommended by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reduce exposure to electromagnetic fields.

Limit usage

Whenever possible, limit the amount of time spent on a laptop. This practice reduces exposure to electromagnetic fields and lowers the risk of developing musculoskeletal disorders and eye strain.

Take frequent breaks

Adam Clarke, Praxis42

Taking regular breaks is essential to mitigate the risk of musculoskeletal issues and eye strain. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) advises taking a 5–10-minute break away from the screen every hour.

Short, frequent breaks are more effective than longer breaks taken less often. Standing up and moving around during these breaks can help prevent musculoskeletal disorders and eye strain.

Follow ergonomic practices

Adopt ergonomic practices to minimise the risk of musculoskeletal disorders.

Always use a desk or table when working with a laptop, or a dedicated laptop desk if necessary. Proper ergonomic setup can significantly reduce physical strain.

Employees can benefit from Display Screen Equipment Training which covers both desktop and laptop safety and supports compliance with the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992.

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