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Industry Denies Health Threat : Explosion in Use of VDTs Spurs Regulation Debate

August 10, 1985|HENRY WEINSTEIN | Times Labor Writer

SALEM, Ore. — Over the last four years, a battle has been gradually developing in legislatures across the country over the efforts of women's groups and labor unions to regulate the use of an electronic tool that is dramatically changing millions of jobs.

That tool is the video display terminal, or VDT, a high-tech machine that is rapidly making the typewriter obsolete. About 13 million Americans are now using them, and electronics industry spokesmen estimate that by the turn of the century, 60 million VDTs will be in use in the United States.

The person who takes airline reservations on the telephone, dispatches a serviceman to fix a leaking gas line, transcribes doctors' reports in a hospital, answers questions about the cost of an auto insurance policy or writes a newspaper story is now or will soon be using a video display terminal. The VDT has become the cornerstone of the automated office.

Bills have been introduced in 20 states, including California, seeking some type of regulation of VDTs. Proponents have cited scientific studies showing that many workers who use the seemingly innocuous electronic appliances are suffering from eyestrain and eye fatigue, backaches and headaches, debilitating wrist injuries and psychological stress.

So far, however, lobbyists for VDT manufacturers and companies with large numbers of employees who use them have convinced most legislators that no laws are needed. They have argued that VDTs, machines that are a hybrid of the typewriter and the television set, are safe and that any problems workers have experienced can be solved by the voluntary efforts of employers.

In a vast majority of states where bills have been introduced, they have been killed in legislative committees.

However, in mid-June, the National Assn. of Working Women, also known as 9 to 5, and the Service Employees International Union announced a breakthrough in their "Campaign for VDT Safety." A statement by the two organizations trumpeted the fact that both houses of the Oregon Legislature had approved a bill regulating the operation of VDTs.

"The passage of this bill in Oregon is a tremendous breakthrough for the safe and productive use of VDTs across the U.S.," said Geri Palast, legislative director of the Service Employees union.

Short-Lived Victory

But the victory was short-lived. Oregon's Republican Gov. Victor G. Atiyeh vetoed the measure, which had been opposed by representatives of the electronics and newspaper industries, among others. The governor said he thought the measure was unnecessary because any problems caused by VDTs could be handled by existing laws.

Atiyeh also indicated that he thought such a law would be harmful to the state's business climate. Oregon has been making a big push to cultivate high-tech industries and has succeeded to such a degree that the area around Beaverton, a town just west of Portland, is now called "Silicon Forest." At present, the state's largest private employer is Beaverton-based Tektronix Inc., which manufactures VDTs.

The supporters of regulation said they are disappointed that Atiyeh nipped their triumph in the bud. But despite a series of legislative defeats, they say the clash over VDT safety is only beginning.

"One of the reasons we're so cheered is the issue didn't exist in the public mind five years ago--in terms of the impact of automation on people in offices," said Deborah Meyer, 9 to 5's director of public information. "We feel we've made people realize there are some drawbacks to using technology and it's time now to start addressing those things."

Matter of Concern

Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), the principal advocate of VDT regulation in California, said the advent of VDTs and how they are used is a matter of profound concern.

"I think it's one of the major issues of our time in terms of what importance we place on employees in the technological revolution," Hayden said.

"I don't want to slow down the technological revolution," said the legislator who also has authored a measure to give tax credits for computer contributions to schools. "But I want the human being to be considered more important than the machine."

Pat McCormick, the lobbyist for the Oregon Council of the American Electronics Assn., said he is pleased that no laws have been passed, but said he expects to be engaged in a long-term struggle over VDT regulation. "It's not an issue that will go away," he said in a recent interview.

In fact, some of the nation's largest corporations including AT&T, Hewlett-Packard and IBM, and trade associations including the Electronics Assn., the American Insurance Assn., the Air Transport Assn. and the American Newspaper Publishers Assn., this year formed the Coalition for Office Technology to combat VDT regulation. Many of the group's 27 member organizations contributed $20,000 each to get the coalition started.

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