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

August 10, 1985|HENRY WEINSTEIN | Times Labor Writer

The workers also will be given access to data on their productivity obtained by company monitoring. VDT operators complain that monitoring--which can measure the employee's arrival and departure time, keyboard speed, number of errors, frequency of breaks and other measurements of performance--is likely to be a subject of future legislation and labor negotiations.

Still, most office workers--about 85% of the persons currently using VDTs on the job fit in that classification--have no union representation, noted Pam Haynes, the health and safety director for the Air Transport Employees Union who also serves as co-chair of the Los Angeles VDT Task Force.

Along the same line, Jackie Ruff, director of the Service Employees' clerical division, stressed the fact that scientific studies have shown that VDT-related health problems are generally worse for people doing the routine, monotonous tasks many office workers perform.

Underlying the legislative battles is an ongoing debate about the safety of VDTs. The medical literature is growing rapidly.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and other scientists in the United States and abroad have documented the physical discomfort and stress experienced by VDT users.

Some of those problems are attributable to the fact that using a VDT is quite different from using a typewriter, noted Diana Roose, director of research for 9 to 5. A person using a typewriter rolls paper in and out of the machine, often uses a carriage return and periodically stops to file away the finished product. In most instances, the VDT eliminates all those steps. One study showed that a person who could type 15 pages in an hour could generate the equivalent of 25 pages on a VDT, a major increase in production that places increased strain on a worker.

"Virtually every survey of VDT users has found a range of 50% to 91% reported chronic eye problems, such as strain, fatigue and irritation, or more severe problems such as chronic myopia," Roose said.

She acknowledged that scientific studies have not demonstrated a clear-cut relationship between the VDT and permanent eye damage such as cataracts. She quickly added that there may not have been enough time since the introduction of VDTs in the last decade for such injuries to develop.

High Complaint Rate

"A high rate" of muscular-skeletal complaints among workers also has been revealed in several surveys, Roose noted. For example, one Swedish study showed that 54.8% of insurance workers using VDTs complained of eye problems, 43.7% of back problems, 30.3% complained of headaches, 15% neck problems, 25% shoulder problems and 18.8% wrist problems. The study also found that the more time a person worked on a terminal the more likely it was that the individual would develop health problems.

Acting at the request of the San Francisco-Oakland Newspaper Guild, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in 1981 released "the first comprehensive evaluation" of the job stress problem among VDT operators.

"The major finding of (the) investigation is that working with VDTs is associated with high levels of job stress," the report noted. The survey showed that "significantly more clerical VDT operators reported job stress health problems than did professionals using VDTs or control subjects."

Roose said there is a "small but growing" number of workers' compensation claims that have been settled in favor of VDT workers for what is known as cumulative trauma injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome (an inflammation of wrist ligaments that ultimately can cause a person to lose his grip).

She also referred to a recent North Carolina study done for the Communications Workers of America showing that one of every five women who worked on VDTs suffered angina, a condition marked by recurrent pain in the chest and left arm caused by a sudden decrease of the blood supply to the heart muscle. That was twice the rate for survey respondents who did not use a terminal.

On the other hand, opponents of regulation stress that many studies show VDTs to be safe. At a congressional hearing last year, Dr. J. Donald Millar, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, said that VDTs have "produced impressively few problems" for operators.

"VDTs are safe to use and pose no unusual health problems," said Charles Abernathy, manager of human factors for Digital Equipment Corp., told a congressional subcommittee in May, 1984. "Concerns about eye discomfort, glare and musculoskeletal aches for VDT operators can be effectively addressed by appropriate work station design."

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