Computers: an introduction

Many jobs involve working with computers for long periods of time, but it is important that you sit in a way that does not harm your arms, back, hands, shoulders or neck. Your employer should help prevent discomfort and injury by ensuring your work station is set up properly.

If you get aches or pains whilst at your desk you should tell your supervisor and/or your UNISON representative. You can avoid serious injury by taking action when you notice a problem, although it’s better to prevent injuries before they begin. There are simple steps that can be taken to stay healthy while working with a computer.

Setting up the workstation safely

Under the Display Screen Equipment (DSE) regulations, employers must minimise the risks of working with computers by making sure that workplaces are well designed and that workers know how to reduce risks.

Employers must:

  • carry out a risk assessment of the workstation;
  • provide properly set up computer workstations;
  • organise your work so that health and safety risks are minimised;
  • provide training, information and guidance to computer users;
  • provide a free eye and eyesight test and pay for glasses if they are needed for DSE work.

You can reduce the risk of injuries by:

  • using your workstation correctly;
  • taking regular breaks from the screen;
  • adjusting your chair height to fit your workstation;
  • reporting any injuries, such as eye strain or pain in the hands, arms or neck.

Computer screens (visual displays / monitors)

Problems caused by computer screens – also called visual display units (VDUs), monitors or display screen equipment (DSE) – are usually the result of improper use, rather than the screen itself.

There is no evidence that screens damage eyes, but long periods of working at a computer screen can cause discomfort. You must ensure the size of text and images on the screen are the right size for you and take regular breaks.

Injuries that may be caused by working with computers:

  • If your workstation is not set up properly, you may suffer from headaches caused by screen glare or bad posture.
  • Work-related upper limb disorders (WRULDs) – also called repetitive strain injury (RSI) – occur when computer users get aches, pains and disorders after long periods of working with a computer. increasing use of PDA’s can lead to poor posture and positioning  and in turn, aches and pains.

Read more about WRULDs and RSIs.

Laptop computers

Some jobs require employees to use computers outside of the office, so a laptop computer may be provided. Because of their small size it can be hard to establish a good fit between the worker and the laptop. This makes it more difficult to maintain good posture.

Carrying a laptop also increases back injuries and the risk of attack and theft, so it’s better to use a desktop computer or a docked laptop whenever possible.

What can your employer do?

All employers have a duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of their employees under the Health and Safety at Work Act.

The Display Screen Equipment regulations also require employers to perform a suitable risk assessment of computers – even for flexible and home workers – and take steps to control risks.

Read more about flexible working .

Next steps for UNISON reps

Negotiate a policy for working with computers. Refer to UNISON and HSE guides for advice.

Make sure that risk assessments are thorough and correct. Safety reps have rights under the management regulations to be consulted by their employers about anything affecting members’ health and safety, including new technology.

Make sure that members are provided with training and information on how to use their DSE and workstation safely.

Make sure that members know about their legal right to eye and eyesight tests.

Key facts
  • Many jobs involve working with computers for long periods of time. It is important that you sit in a way that does not cause back problems and take regular screen breaks to prevent eye strain.
  • Computers in the workplace should be assessed using risk assessment procedures.
  • A poorly set-up workstation can lead to discomfort, back pain, work-related upper limb disorders or repetitve strain injury.
  • DSE regulations suggest a 5-10 minute screen break or change of activity every hour.



  • How often should I stop for a screen break?

    The DSE regulations suggest that short frequent breaks are better than occasional longer breaks. For example, a 5-10 minute break after 50-60 minutes continuous screen work is likely to be better than a 15-20 minute break every two hours.

  • I am a rep and a member has approached me to say they have an injury from sitting at a computer. What can I do?

    Find out if the workstation in question has been risk assessed; if not ask your employer to conduct a risk assessment and make the necessary improvements. If an assessment had already been carried out then a reassessment should be done to help identify the cause of the injury. The injury should also be recorded in the accident book.

  • I need an eye test. Can my employer help?

    You are entitled to a free eye and eyesight test on request and additional free tests if recommended by your optician. If you are prescribed glasses to help you work on a computer screen your employer must pay for a basic pair of glasses.

  • What is the safest way to set up my workstation or desk?

    Check UNISON guidance and advice. Your employer is responsible for the way your workstation is set up. They must make sure that the minimum requirements set out in the regulations are met.

    The minimum requirements cover the equipment, such as the screen, keyboard and chair; the working environment, such as lighting, leg room and window covering to reduce glare on the screen; and the software used, which must be appropriate for the task.

    They should also provide you with training to help you to adjust the height and angle of your screen and your chair.