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The eyes have it with VDT strain.

Have you ever come away from working on a video display terminal with eyestrain, headaches or similar forms of discomfort? If you have, then you're not alone.

A recent nationwide survey of 1,307 optemetrists found them handling an average of 27 VDT-related eyestrain patients per month, more than eight millioin cases per year. The survey by James Sheedy, chief of the University of California-Berkeley VDT Eye Clinic, is believed to be the first of its kind to compile national statistics on visual problems related to computer usage.

"It's not serious in that it's not life threatening," says Dr. Sheedy, who conducted the survey through the facilities of Optical Coating Laboratory Inc. In Santa Rosa, California. "It is serious in terms of the magnitude of the problem, which finds people being placed in an uncomfortable situation. It's not necessary that people experience this discomfort. When people are less comfortable, they're also less productive."

While there is no medical evidence to suggest VDT-related visual problems can result in permanent ocular damage, Dr. Sheedy notes that the survey found the major symptoms of this problem--eyestrain, headaches and blurred vision--could be divided between physiological and spectacle design issues. Physiological issues, he says, occur with a worker whose job demands exceed the physical abilities of his vision. Spectable design issues, he continues, are "most common with a person who wears bifocals. The bifocals are prescribed for downward viewing, around 25 degrees, but the VDT is usually down 10 to 15 degrees. So the person with general-issue bifocals tilts his head back and slouches closer to the VDT, which leads to problems."

According to the survey, the types of visual disordres predominant among VDT patients are the inability to focus (34.6 percent), the inability to comfortably keep the eyes aligned (17.8 percent) and unconnected refractive errors and/or improper spectacle design (4.8 percent). Fifty-five percent of the optometrists stated VDT patients had different eye symptoms from other patients.

Despite the wide degree of difficulty resulting from the situation, the risks in creating and continuing the problem can be easily corrected. In fact, it could be completely eliminated before a new employee first switches on the VDT monitor.

Complete Examinations

"Many VDT operators should have a complete eye exam before beginning VDT work and on a fairly regular basis after they begin," recommends Steve Miller, director of the clinical care center for the American Optometric Association in St. Louis. "There are indications that perhaps as many as one-third of the work force have either uncorrected or undercorrected vision problems, which becomes very significant when the individual has to work at a VDT."

While on the job, Dr. Miller suggests that tasks should be constructed so that workers would not have to be subjected to "hour after hour of continuous VDT use." He favors either rest breaks of five to 10 minutes inserted throughout the day or the addition of alternative task breaks that would allow VDT users to focus their eyes on tasks that do not involve keyboards and screens.

Workstation ergonomics can also play a factor in reducing eyestrain, says Dr. Sheedy. He cautions against the intrusion of bright lights within one's field of vision, including overhead fluorescent lights or desk lamps. He notes this situation could be corrected by turning off the problem lights, by rotating the workstation to minimize the glare or by wearing a visor to block out the unnecessary light. Dr. Sheedy also recommends positioning the VDT screen about 20 to 24 inches away from the eyes and below eye level, because keeping it straight ahead or above eye level would cause postural adjustment that will contribute to eyestrain.

Dr. Miller says that roughly 25 percent to 30 percent of the population is covered by some type of vision care plan, but he adds that statistics are not available on how many eyecare plans cover VDT-related problems.

In July 1990, NYNEX Corp. added VDT coverage to its pre-existing vision care program when it determined that at least half of its employees worked with VDTs. Betsy Ricci, staff director for the White Plains, New York-based telecommunications firm, reports that about 20,000 NYNEX employees work with VDTs, from desktop PCs to handheld models used by telephone installers.

Ms. Ricci explains that all NYMEX employees who work with VDTs, including part-time staff, are automatically enrolled in the program and are entitled to a precertified voucher covering an annual VDT eye exam and new occupational lenses or the replacement of broken and lost glasses every year as needed. The coverage, though, is limited to certain preferred providers. Also, employees must pay the difference on frames which are not among the optometrists' selection.

Furthermore, Ms. Ricci adds, NYNEX is not taking any chances on encouraging problems--managers for departments requiring VDT usage are given a 24-page brochure highlighting guidelines on VDT selection, design and workplace ergonomics.
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Title Annotation:survey by James Sheedy, chief of University of California at Berkeley's VDT Eye Clinic; video display terminal
Author:Hall, Phil
Publication:Risk Management
Date:Feb 1, 1992
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