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Bring your own devices: the implications

In recent years there has been a large increase in the use of mobile devices in the workplace. Irrespective of their employer's policy to allow it or not, employees take their smartphones and tablets to the work to use apps, check e-mails, surf the Internet and use social media during their breaks. Bring your own device (BYOD) has arrived. Personal mobile devices are being used as additional business tools more and more by employees and it seems likely that these devices will eventually become the main equipment used for business purposes. This leads to concerns about security, data protection issues and arguments over whether employers have the right to access data from personal devices. There is one issue that is also causing concern. What are the health and safety implications of using personal mobile devices in the workplace?

Posture concerns All workstation users face the problem of maintaining good posture. If a workstation is set up incorrectly, without a suitably adjusted chair, or without a separate keyboard and screen (at the correct height), users will not be working with the correct posture. If people start to use their own devices as their main work equipment, this is likely to be even harder to control. Mobile phones and tablets are designed to be held in the hands, rather than on a workstation making it difficult to maintain good posture. Holding a device means that the spine is curved in a non-neutral alignment, increasing pressure to the spinal discs and to neck and back muscles and ligaments. The more someone does this —for example, throughout a shift and then in their own time outside work — the more back problems are likely to arise. Some other problems can arise from the overuse of hand-held mobile and tablet devices:

  • repetitive, awkward finger movements (especially with the thumbs)

  • static, awkward postures of the neck and shoulders to read the phone and tablet screens

  • awkward postures of the neck, shoulder and wrist from long-duration phone calls

  • excessive gripping of the devices.

With small screens, particularly on phones, concentration levels will increase the eye-related problems already associated with computers and laptops. It is usual to blink between 16 and 20 times per minute. When using a mobile phone screen, that blink rate can reduce to between six and eight times per minute, so prolonged use can cause dry and tired eyes. Poor neck position and eye strain will increase the chance of headaches. Prolonged use can also affect the ocular muscles in the eye, causing temporary blurred vision. Benefits The use of mobile devices for work purposes is not a wholly negative story. Take the example of someone who is in and out of meetings all day at a number of different locations. Previously, this person would have carried around a laptop, a power lead, paperwork, separate keyboard, riser and a computer mouse. Often this would be in a traditional shoulder-strapped laptop bag, which would add strain to the back and shoulders. Now all the person needs is their smartphone or tablet, weighing next to nothing, which they can link with the organisation’s servers as required. So, a common manual handling problem may be alleviated.

Possible solutions The Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 were introduced when the Internet was in its infancy, typewriters were still in use and computer monitors were often large “green screens”. Users were identified based on their use of the equipment provided by their employer. Although technology has changed, the regulatory principles still apply. It is still vital to train and risk assess users, as they are likely to sit at a workstation using their device. However one package of training and risk assessment may not fit all, as different employees may have different devices and different risk levels. Previously, all users would probably have been provided with exactly the same laptop / computer, monitor and keyboard, except where something more specialist was required. With BYOD, it is much more likely that the various types of equipment used will have different specifications and, more importantly, will not belong to the employer, but the employee. Each make and model has its own accessories, power connections, and operating systems that may or may not be compatible with the employers’ own systems. Any training must be specific to the devices being used. It should also cover advice such as:

  • Limit the length and frequency of calls, texts, and e-mails. This could be done by including using compatible headsets (if available), or speaker phones, or even landlines.

  • Take frequent micro-breaks from phones and tablets in exactly the same way as from a traditional workstation and screen. Smaller, frequent breaks are better than one long break to allow recovery time of muscles, ligaments and discs.

  • Alternate fingers when using buttons and touchscreens.

  • Reduce keystrokes with text shortcuts or, where feasible, use speech-recognition applications. Many devices have a wide range of shortcuts available.

  • Maintain a neutral wrist posture and alternate hands when holding the devices. For tablets, there are many cases with hand straps on them designed to reduce gripping.

  • Focus on neck posture and avoid looking down when reading e-mails or texts.

Remember too that mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets are not designed for long-term continuous use. The introduction of BYOD will see an increase in such use.

Accessories Many keyboards and stands are available for mobile phones and tablets. This highlights that the industry is aware of the aforementioned problems. However often the stands do not provide enough height to allow the screen to be at a level that allows the user to maintain good posture.

The screen will need to be nearer to the user than a normal sized monitor, otherwise users lean forward, leading to a non-neutral curved back. Some devices may be compatible with certain larger monitors. Syncing the device with these monitors can improve neck posture and reduce eye strain, owing to the increased screen size. Keyboards on smartphones are generally too small to maintain a neutral typing position. The wrist position would have to be in a radial (inward) deviation from neutral. This is stressful for the wrists and could affect the radial nerve, and lead to problems with the thumb. Any external keyboard should preferably be the correct size and type for the user, and compatible with the mobile device. It should be placed in a position that allows the shoulders to relax and the elbows to rest at the sides. These options are only useful when at a workstation and if the particular device is compatible and can synchronise with the relevant screen, keyboard or other input device. Most people already use their mobile in the hand, so it will be difficult to force people to use these accessories, particularly with their own personal equipment.

Conclusions BYOD is a reality. Employers introducing BYOD should focus attention on providing relevant training for employees to help them stay healthy. Manufacturers should develop accessories that will allow users to work safely from a workstation while maintaining good posture. Mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets are not designed for long-term use. Finding the right balance between personal device use for business and the technology provided by the business may well become a widespread problem in coming years.

However, it is apparent that BYOD, if managed correctly, with an awareness of the hazards that users can face, is likely to be the future of a modern working environment.

First published on this website in December 2017.

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