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BUSINESS PULSE: A SPECIAL REPORT : COMPUTERS : VDTs Can Be a Pain in the Back, Wrist, Eyes . . .

May 22, 1990|JONATHAN WEBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Behind the gleaming glass of the office buildings that dot Orange County, executives and secretaries alike toil away at computer terminals--an activity that seems safe enough. One would think the hazardous duty at such locales was limited to the window-washers.

But what appears to be the fastest-growing occupational safety problem in the country has more to do with screens than scaffolds. People who spend a lot of time working at video display terminals are increasingly being afflicted with a range of maladies that are often grouped under the heading "computeritis."

The problems posed by computers range from relatively minor eye or back strains to serious muscular-skeletal disorders, such as painful and debilitating carpal tunnel syndrome. And the jury is still out on the question of whether low-level magnetic radiation from VDTs can cause reproductive disorders in women.

Vicki O'Neil of Anaheim Hills was among the 10% of the respondents to The Times Orange County Poll who reported health problems from working at a computer. Her eyesight, she said, has definitely deteriorated during the eight years she has worked with a computer as an administrative assistant. She also complains of constant fatigue.

"I just wasn't made to sit in front of one of these things all day," O'Neil said.

She also believes two miscarriages were linked to constant exposure to VDTs, although she concedes that she cannot prove a link. But she suffered another problem that everyone associated with computeritis knows to be real: "If you tell someone their problems are from the computer, they laugh at you."

No one at the Bureau of Labor Statistics is laughing, though. The federal agency reported a sharp increase in "cumulative trauma" disorders in its latest count of occupational illnesses, with 115,400 cases nationwide. That category, which accounts for 48% of all workplace disorders, includes injuries from a wide variety of jobs that require constant repetition of an activity. It includes such diverse occupations as meatpacking, piano playing, supermarket checking and newspaper reporting.

In 1987 these repetitive motion problems accounted for just 38% of all disorders, and in 1981 they represented only 18%. Experts are convinced the dramatic increase is due to computer-related injuries.

Many employers have begun to recognize some of the physical problems associated with heavy computer usage.

Carpal tunnel syndrome results from inflammation of the tendons that pass through a "tunnel" of bones in the wrist and can cause severe pain in the hands and forearms. Back and neck pain are also frequent complaints of computer users. And eyestrain, including claims of permanent vision damage, are the most common malady of VDT users.

Many computer-related problems can be alleviated, at least in part, if the height and distance of screens are adjusted properly, if good lighting and good seating is used and if workers are educated about proper posture. Forward-thinking companies already have programs in place to make the computer workplace a safer one.

The Los Angeles Times, which has had numerous complaints of computeritis among reporters and editors, is currently taking part in a major National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health study of VDT maladies.

"The business community has been responding, but we still have a very large number of people working in bad situations," said Laura Stock, associate director of the Labor Occupational Health Program at UC Berkeley and a leading authority on computeritis.

The Santa Monica-based Human Factors Society has developed a set of standards for adjustable workstations that take people's physical needs into account, and they were adopted by the national standards organizations. But the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration Standards Board refused last year to establish mandatory guidelines for safe workstations.

Union and other worker representatives on the Ad Hoc Advisory Committee on Visual Display Terminals had recommended such action, but the industry representatives declined to go along. The Cal/OSHA Standards Board instead recommended that standards be developed for training workers on proper VDT use.

The board said no conclusive evidence had been presented that working at VDTs is a "hazard," defined as leading to permanent physical injury. It did acknowledge, however, that significant problems exist with regard to eyestrain and muscular-skeletal ailments.

Stock and other VDT experts emphasize that while workstation design is important, many of the problems can be alleviated only through changes in the work itself. "If people are doing the same thing all day long, that's going to lead to problems," Stock said. She cites the need for changes in "job design" that will allow some variation in workers' activities.

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