Many schools and colleges have dedicated ICT suites, while others locate all or some of their computers in ordinary classrooms.  Whatever the ICT strategy, the equipment should be safe and comfortable for both staff and pupils to use.

The briefing is divided into 7 main sections:

  1. What the law says
  2. Staff duties and responsibilities
  3. Good workstation ergonomics for staff and pupils
  4. Safety issues in computer suites
  5. Safety issues in the classroom
  6. Health and safety hazards
  7. ICT equipment checklist for safety representatives and members at home can be downloaded from the full guide.
     

What the law says

The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 makes employers are legally responsible for ensuring the health and safety of their employees and individuals on their premises. In schools this duty covers teachers, other members of staff and pupils.

Specific legal standards for computer safety are set out in the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992. These are known as the “DSE Regulations”. These standards apply automatically only to those employees who fall within the Regulations’ legal definition of "users" (i.e. those who use computers daily, for continuous periods of an hour or more).

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to assess the risks to health and safety of their employees while they are at work.

Staff duties and responsibilities

All employees are required by law to take reasonable care for the health and safety of themselves and others, including pupils, and to co-operate with the employer by following the rules and procedures laid down for health and safety.

Staff supervising lessons using IT equipment must therefore follow safety guidelines for correct use of equipment and also ensure that they are followed by pupils.  It is extremely unlikely that staff could be held to be legally responsible for any injury arising from misuse of ICT equipment provided that they had sought to ensure that proper procedures are followed.  In any event, even where a member of staff has failed to fulfil the duty of care, it is the employer who bears “vicarious liability”.

Where schools/colleges allow staff to use school laptops or equipment at home, the NEU expects them to sure ensure that this equipment is appropriately insured.  Staff should not be expected to bear the cost of insurance or of loss or damage to equipment used at home.

The DSE Regulations 

The guidance to the DSE Regulations defines as ‘user’ either as:

  • someone who makes "more or less continuous use" of computer equipment at work: or
  • where use is less frequent, a person is considered to be a user if the following criteria apply;
  1. normally use DSE for continuous or near-continuous spells of an hour or more at a time; and
  2. use DSE in this way more or less daily; and
  3. have to transfer information quickly to or from the DSE;

In addition, they must also need to apply high levels of attention and concentration; or be highly dependent on the DSE or have little choice about using it; or need special training or skills to use the DSE.

Staff routinely use computers as an integral part of their job, both throughout the working day and when working at home. The NEU firmly believes that all teachers and most members of non-teaching staff meet the definition of ‘user’ under the DSE Regulations.

Eye tests

Under the DSE regulations, users have a right to eye tests upon starting computer work and at regular intervals after, at the employer’s expenses. Where tests show that the user requires special glasses or lenses for computer work, the employer must pay for the cost of a basic pair. The NEU believes that any employee required to work with a display screen, whether a “user” or a more occasional operator, should be entitled to a regular eye test paid for by the employer.

Disabled Employees

The HSE advises that wheelchair users may have special requirements for both their chair and work surface (e.g. height).  In practice some wheelchair users may need a purpose-built work station but others may prefer to use existing work surfaces.  The HSE’s advice states that, clearly, the needs of the individual here should have priority over rigid compliance with the details given in the Schedule to the Regulations as regards seating and work surfaces.  The Equality Act 2010 requires reasonable adjustments to be made by employers to normal arrangements to cater for the needs of disabled employees.

Planning work to include breaks and changes in activity

The HSE advises that where work cannot be organised so as to contain natural breaks, then deliberate breaks or pauses must be introduced. The HSE stresses that such breaks should be included in working time.  It advises taking short breaks of 5-10 minutes every 50-60 minutes as opposed to longer but less frequent breaks.  The RSI Association, however, recommends a break of a few minutes in each half hour from keyboard work.  In schools and colleges, normal timetabling will probably restrict the time at which pupils and staff work on ICT equipment but these limits should be observed for such work both during and out of school/college hours.

DSE user training

Employers must provide information, instruction and health and safety training to users to help them identify risks and safe work practices. The NEU believes that both staff and pupils should be given training on issues such as:

  • the risks of RSI from excessive keyboard use;
  • the length of time to be spent at a computer screen and the need for regular breaks;
  • the importance of proper posture and seating relative to the keyboard and screen; and
  • safety precautions when using the equipment, including adjusting the workstation and furniture, switching machines on and off, not eating or drinking at workstations, and not interfering with power connection or moving computer equipment without seeking assistance.

Further guidance about the DSE Regulations is available on the HSE website.

Risk assessment

Employers are legally required to undertake risk assessments of their employees’ workstations which consider the entire workstation, including equipment and furniture as well as the work environment, e.g. lighting, temperature and leg room.

The HSE advises that the risk assessment procedure involves: 

  • looking for hazards:
  • deciding who might be harmed and how:
  • evaluating the risks and deciding whether the existing precautions are adequate or more should be done:
  • recording the findings and telling employees about them: and
  • reviewing and revising the risk assessment when required, for instance if the work changes, following an accident or when someone returns to work after sickness or injury.

The HSE’s guidance on the Display Screen Equipment Regulations makes clear that safety representatives should play a full part in the risk assessment process.  They should be consulted by the employer and the information provided by them and by the workers involved should be taken into account in determining the safety precautions to be implemented.

Health and safety representatives may carry out informal assessments of risks involved in use of ICT equipment during their safety inspections or otherwise under their rights as a safety representative.  These should not be confused with, and do not replace, the employer's risk assessment.

The main risks to health associated with ICT work are RSI upper limb pain and discomfort; eye and eyesight defects; fatigue and stress; epilepsy; facial dermatitis; electromagnetic radiation; and effects on pregnant women

Good workstation ergonomics for teachers and pupils

Ergonomics is the study of workspace design and its effects on the worker. One of the most critical factors affecting the health of computer users is the design and layout of the workstation. A badly arranged workstation can lead to the adoption of a bad working posture with consequent back pains, neck pains as well as the risk of serious repetition injuries such as tenosynovitis and carpal tunnel syndrome or visual problems. Ergonomics is about ensuring a good ‘fit’ between people and the equipment they use.  The likelihood of pupils or staff suffering health problems linked to computer use is related to the amount of time spent using them.

The most important factor in workstation design is adjustability. This is particularly important in schools because a wide range of users of different sizes and shapes will be using the equipment. Choosing equipment on the basis of price alone will almost always be a false economy.

As well as the equipment being adjustable, users must know how to make the necessary adjustments. The adjustments should be easy to make and it should be possible to make the most common adjustments from the working position.

Particular problems are likely to arise in infant schools where pupil desk heights and chair sizes will not be adaptable to suit adults. Staff should always ensure that, as a minimum they sit on a chair designed for an adult when working with a very young child. See NEU health and safety briefing Classroom Ergonomics.

Set out below is advice on the features of workstations which require particular attention in schools:

Keyboard

In order to achieve a comfortable keyboard position, users must not be either hunched over the keyboard or having to stretch out to reach it. It may be necessary to push the display screen further back to create more room for the keyboard, hands and wrists. It is important to keep wrists straight when keying, and not overstretch the fingers.

Mouse

Most devices are best placed right beside the keyboard. Users should be encouraged to relax their arm and keep their wrist straight. Smaller pupils should not have to stretch their arm across the desk to reach the mouse. Very young pupils may need a mouse designed to fit a child’s hand.  Left-handed users are likely to find a left-handed mouse more comfortable to use so these should be made available on request.

Chair

It is important that the chair is adjustable to accommodate a wide range of heights. To have forearms in the correct keying position, a short user will have to raise the chair height. The seat back should have a height and tilt adjustment, a seat height adjustment, a swivel mechanism and castors or gliders. Staff and pupils must be made aware of how to carry out the adjustments necessary. The user should have a straight back, supported by the chair with relaxed shoulders. Feet should rest flat on the floor. If they don’t, a foot rest will be needed. Chairs with arms can cause problems since they can prevent the user getting close enough to the equipment comfortably.

Display screens

Users need to be able to swivel and tilt the screen into a comfortable position. Whatever position is chosen by the user, the screen needs to be free from glare and reflections. This can be achieved by moving the screen, or even the desk and/or shielding the screen from the source of reflection through use of blinds.

Document holders

The document holder should be positioned to minimise neck movement for users.

Desk

It is desirable to use desks which are adjustable in height, preferably with a separate keyboard area which is also height-adjustable. This will enable each operator to achieve an optimal combination of screen and keyboard. If there is no alternative to a fixed height desk, the adjustability of the other workstation elements, particularly the chair, is of even greater importance.

Pupils with special educational needs

It is important to ensure that workstations are designed to meet the needs of all pupils and staff, including those with disabilities and medical conditions.  Local authority advisory staff, physiotherapists and specialist teachers may be able to provide advice during the planning and designing stage.

Safety issues in the ICT suite

Lighting

Levels of lighting should be slightly lower than lighting recommendations for standard classrooms so that there is appropriate contrast between screen and background environment.  ‘Category 2’ lighting is the standard recommendation for ICT suites.

Reflection and glare

Pupils and staff should be able to see displays adequately.  If there is too much reflected light on monitor screens, blinds may be necessary.  Semi-translucent blinds stop glare from the sun but let in some light.  Vertical shades are best for reducing low-angle sunshine, particularly in east and west-facing rooms and they can be easier than horizontal blinds for gaining access to open and shut windows.

Temperature and humidity

Ideally the temperature of an ICT suite should be 18-24 degrees centigrade, with the humidity between 40 per cent and 60 per cent.  It is important that the temperature remains comfortable, even with the computers running for prolonged periods.  Fresh air needs to circulate; installing a fan simply moves the warm, stale air without renewing it.

Seating

Good quality seating, which supports the back, is important if pupils and staff are going to be seated for extended periods.  Seating should be height-adjustable so that monitors and keyboards are correctly positioned and pupils do not have to look up or down at the monitor for long periods. 

Flooring

Flooring or carpet should be non-slip and anti-static.  Ease of cleaning and noise reduction are other important factors to consider.

Space between workstations

The former British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA) recommended that there should be a minimum of 1 metre between workstations at which one pupil is working, but 1.5 metres enables two pupils to work comfortably together.  There should be at least 850mm of clear space in front of the computer table for a chair and circulation space.  If tables are arranged back to back there should be 1.2 metres of space between them.  This will allow wheelchair users to pass.  Pupils’ bags must not be allowed to block the gangways, thus creating a tripping hazard.

Cabling

All cabling should be inaccessible to children and boxed off.

Fire Exits

Fire exits must be kept clear at all times.  They must not be blocked by computer equipment or pupils’ bags.

Safety issues in the general classroom

Siting of Equipment

Equipment should be situated where it will not cause a hazard with trailing cables and away from water supplies.

When using laptops, they need to be located on firm desks or tables. Procedures should be established to ensure that when laptops are moved, they are moved safely. 

Laptop computer charging trolleys

Some general classrooms make use of laptop charging trolleys as a means of providing more mobile ICT facilities.  A 2009 HSE investigation into an electric shock incident involving a laptop charging trolley found that when a 3-pin plug supplying the trolley was removed from the supply socket there was sufficient stored electric charge on the pins of the plug to give the user an electric shock.  In addition some trolleys were identified which had two supply cables contrary to good electrical engineering practice, inadequate plug and cable storage facilities and unsuitable earth terminations. Further HSE guidance is available here

Health and safety hazards

The following sections give NEU advice on a variety of health and safety issues ranging from physical hazards such as eye strain, headaches and repetitive strain injury (RSI) to safety considerations when using particular kinds of equipment such as laptop computers and wireless area networks. 

Pregnancy and display screen work

Past safety concerns about computer use for pregnant women have been overtaken by more recent research indicating that there is no association between computer use and miscarriage/birth defects.  Although it is impossible to prove that using a computer is 100% safe in pregnancy, there is a wealth of research which has failed to find evidence of harm.  Pregnant women should, however, pay particular attention to their general health and comfort when working on computers.  This involves taking regular breaks of 10 minutes every hour (more frequently if necessary) and ensuring good posture (which may require adaptation of workplace equipment).  Contact lens wearers sometimes find that they need to wear glasses for on-screen work as water retention in pregnancy can affect the shape of the eye ball.  If this is a problem, an optician should be consulted. The employer should review their risk assessment for pregnant employees to ascertain whether adjustments are required to their workstation.

Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)

One of the major problems arising from ICT work is RSI, which describes a range of conditions characterised by pain, numbness or discomfort in the muscles, tendons, nerves and joints of the hand, wrist, forearm, elbow and upper arm, and sometimes the shoulders and neck.

HSE guidance includes a range of advice which seeks to minimise the risk of RSI.  This includes guidance on the layout of workstations (furniture and equipment) and on work processes.

The HSE advises taking breaks from keyboard work of between five and ten minutes every hour, while the RSI Association recommends a break of a few minutes in each half hour.  The HSE also emphasises the importance of being relaxed, since RSI can be caused by tension and working under stress which tenses the muscles and restricts circulation.

Other steps to prevent RSI can include providing adjustable keyboards and wrist rests and ensuring users know how to use them properly, and providing copy/document holders and adequate space around the workstation as well.

RSI due to Mouse Use

Using a mouse may give rise to greater risks than using a keyboard because use of a mouse concentrates activity on one hand and on one or two fingers, which makes aches and pain in the fingers, hands, wrists, arms or shoulders more likely.

Epilepsy

Display screen use cannot cause epilepsy and is unlikely to cause problems to sufferers of most forms of epilepsy.  Photosensitive epilepsy, however, is a rare form of epilepsy which puts the sufferer at an increased risk of experiencing an attack through display screen work.  It is unlikely that this form of epilepsy would become apparent for the first time through working with display screens but, as a precaution, enquiries should be made of parents where children are known to be suffering from epilepsy or are in an epilepsy risk category.

Skin Rashes

Skin rashes are sometimes reported amongst display screen workers.  In many cases environmental factors contribute to this problem but static-electric fields building up around screens, low level X-ray emissions and ultraviolet radiation given off by screens may be linked to skin rashes.  Again, further research is needed into this association.

Stress

Stress has been identified as a problem amongst ICT workers.  Again, factors contributing to this have included hot and noisy environments, poor workplace design, machine failures and social isolation.  The best means of combating stress is by observing the need for regular breaks from continuous screen work.

Risks due to use of laptops

Many schools offer laptop computers to pupils and staff for use within and outside school.  Their portability is their main advantage.  Some children, or even staff, may, however, still find them too heavy.

Laptops have to be compact enough to be easy to carry, resulting in design compromises like smaller keyboards and screens.  Laptop work is therefore less comfortable than work at standard sized equipment during prolonged use.  Careful consideration needs to be given to where and how laptops are used in schools.  It is worth noting that it is possible to purchase regular-sized keyboards to attach to these computers.  Staff who spend a lot of time at home working on their own laptop computer may wish to consider this.  For staff who do so, see also the checklist below.

Specific training and information should be given for laptop users on minimising risks, including sitting comfortably, angling the screen to minimise reflections and, wherever possible, placing the laptop on a firm surface at the right height for keying.

The HSE has suggested that the following ergonomic factors be taken into account when choosing portable computers:

  • choose a lighter weight model of 3kg or less, with a large and clear screen (14 inch diagonal or more;
  • select one with the longest battery life possible;
  • choose a lightweight carry case with handle and shoulder straps.

Smartphones and tablets

The main hazards inherent in such equipment are:

  • repetitive strain injury (RSI).  The small size of the keyboards fitted on such devices can lead to RSI problems;
  • musculo-skeletal disorders arising from the posture adopted when using tablets and other mobile devices;
  • eye strain and visual fatigue caused by squinting to view the small screen; and
  • stress - arising from the fact that the device is always on, so the user feels that he or she is always at work.

Other hazards stem from the locations in which such portable devices are used.  Back pain and general musculo-skeletal disorders can arise from their use in unsuitable places such as trains and cafes.  Fears of theft of the equipment lead to stress and anxiety about personal safety, whilst for those who literally use such technology ‘on the move’ there is the very real risk of injuries arising as a result of slips, trips and falls.

Small communications devices are of course subject to the Display Screen Equipment Regulations 1992, if they are in use for prolonged periods as part of someone’s work.  The HSE is aware of anecdotal reports of wrist and thumb pain arising from the heavy use of thumbs in typing words onto such handheld devices, and advises that any such risks should be managed in the normal way, i.e. the employer should carry out a risk assessment as they would for a laptop computer.  The HSE also recommends that smartphone users should avoid heavy usage of the equipment in poor working environments, such as where the conditions are cramped or there is inadequate lighting. 

Where full-sized DSE equipment is available, e.g. back in the office, there is no need to use small palm-top devices, and smartphone users are advised to take more frequent breaks to compensate for the ergonomic disadvantages inherent in the equipment.

Many staffs now make use of tablet computers.  These devices offer convenience and flexibility but can pose their own health and safety problems.  For example, there is a tendency when using a tablet device to adopt an awkward posture which can lead to discomfort with prolonged use.  Researchers from Harvard University have found that tablet users keep their heads in more flexed positions when using tablets than positions used by typical computer users.  Working for long periods with the head slumped forward and the neck flexed can cause pain.  It is recommended that users change posture every 15 minutes and use a case that doubles as a tablet stand. 

The HSE states that staff who habitually use portable DSE equipment should be trained in how to minimise risks, for example by sitting comfortably, angling the screen so it is easy to read and taking frequent breaks. Wherever possible, portable DSE devices should be placed on a firm surface at a comfortable height. Where portables are in prolonged use at the user’s main place of work, additional steps can be taken to reduce risks, e.g by using a docking station.

Electrical hazards

The Electricity at Work Regulations 1989 require all electrical systems and equipment to be constructed and maintained in a safe condition.  When planning a new computer installation, it is common for schools to discover they need some rewiring, especially as, until recently, few classrooms were built with adequate consideration of future requirements.

Power cables must be carried in trunking that separates them from voice and data cables.  Any cabling within ‘hand’s reach’ should be secured within trunking.  Sufficient space in main trunking routes should be designed to accommodate future needs.  Power cables should be secured and covered and should not trail.  All electrical work should be undertaken by suitably qualified staff.

Other issues to look out for are stray leads, trailing flexes, frayed leads, damaged plugs and coiled cables.  See NEU advice on health and safety briefing Electrical Safety.

Asbestos

The installation of ICT cabling and other associated building work may disturb asbestos which may be present in ceiling tiles, insulation board and other materials.  Removal of asbestos- containing materials must be carried out by licensed contractors.  See NEU health and safety briefing Asbestos in Schools.

Wireless networks

Wireless internet connections are commonplace in schools, as well as in homes, public transport and other premises.

In 2007, the then Health Protection Agency (HPA), (now Public Health England (PHE)), began a research project to discover just how much of the energy transmitted from Wi-Fi equipment people do absorb.  One particular concern the research team set out to investigate was the effect of Wi-Fi networks on children.  In order to do this, scientists set up 15 laptop computers commonly used in UK schools in a laboratory and measured the strength of the radio waves around them. 

They found that even when the laptops were left transmitting continuously they measured very low RF exposures: maximum emissions were in the range 17 to 57 milliwatts (mW), which is well within the agreed Europe-wide limit of 100mW.  Researchers say the exposure would be lower still with the intermittent transmissions that occur in normal use and that emissions from Wi-Fi are likely to be lower than those from mobile phones and broadly the same as from other RF applications such as FM radios and TVs.

Based on these findings and previous research, the HPA concluded in 2009 that:

  • the level of exposure to radio waves as a result of working on laptops using Wi-Fi falls well within international safety guidelines;
  • there is no consistent evidence to date that exposure to radio waves from Wi-Fi or other wireless networks adversely affects the health of the general population; and
  • there is, therefore, no reason why schools and others should not use Wi-Fi equipment.

A 2012 report, however, by the Health Protection Agency’s independent Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation (AGNIR) concluded that there was still no convincing evidence that Wi-Fi technologies caused adverse effects on the health of adults or children.

More recently, the UK government confirmed their view on wi-fi in schools, in response to a parliamentary question. The DfE stated that it is for individual schools to make a decision about whether to implement wi-fi. It also advised that Public Health England is the lead for this issue, and their advice is that there is no reason why schools should not use wi-fi. The DfE advise that schools take ‘reasonable steps to ensure that staff and pupils are not exposed to health and safety risks by conducting a risk assessment and, if necessary, putting measures in place to minimise any known risk’.

Because of the conflicting nature of the available advice, the NEU would wish to see further research before we change our advice, which is that that, because there is no convincing scientific evidence of adverse health effects, we don't oppose its use in schools. This is in accordance with the TUC position. Whilst recognising that some remain concerned about the use of wi-fi, removal of wireless networks would be hugely disruptive for schools/colleges so we await further recommendations from the HSE and/or Department of Health before altering our guidance.  It is worth noting also that, in addition to the wireless networks in hotels, cafés, libraries and other public areas, many homes use wireless networks not just for computers, but in cordless telephones, burglar alarms and baby monitors.  If there is a need to protect children, while they spend a lot of time at school, they spend more time at home.

Where there is universal agreement, however, is on the need to restrict mobile phone use by children.  The Department of Health and Public Health England support this view[1] and the NEU agrees that it is sensible to restrict mobile phone use to essential situations, particularly for young children.   Implementing a ban on mobile phones in schools would, however, be hugely difficult.  Such a policy would be time-consuming and disruptive to enforce since it would involve searching pupils’ bags.

It is, of course, important to have wireless networks installed by specialists in accordance with the industry standards for network cabling.

Data projectors

Use of data projectors (or interactive whiteboard projectors) is widespread in schools. Certain precautions should be taken to avoid discomfort and possible damage to the eye.  Training in the safe use of the equipment is essential.

Recent advice from the HSE has established that the projector beam can damage peripheral vision.  Victims usually do not realise they have been affected until it is too late. 

According to the HSE there is a possibility that a viewer’s peripheral retina could be overexposed even when he or she is not actually staring at the projector’s apparent source.  A person would not look away because there would be no realisation that damage was being done and ‘no protective aversion response’.  However, the HSE have expressed confidence that teachers and children would not be at risk if they followed safety guidelines. NEU guidance on data projectors in schools is available here.

Pregnancy and display screen work

Past safety concerns about computer use for pregnant women have been overtaken by more recent research indicating that there is no association between computer use and miscarriage/birth defects.  Although it is impossible to prove that using a computer is 100% safe in pregnancy, there is a wealth of research which has failed to find evidence of harm.  Pregnant women should, however, pay particular attention to their general health and comfort when working on computers.  This involves taking regular breaks of 10 minutes every hour (more frequently if necessary) and ensuring good posture (which may require adaptation of workplace equipment).  Contact lens wearers sometimes find that they need to wear glasses for on-screen work as water retention in pregnancy can affect the shape of the eye ball.  If this is a problem, an optician should be consulted. The employer should review their risk assessment for pregnant employees to ascertain whether adjustments are required to their workstation.

Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)

One of the major problems arising from ICT work is RSI, which describes a range of conditions characterised by pain, numbness or discomfort in the muscles, tendons, nerves and joints of the hand, wrist, forearm, elbow and upper arm, and sometimes the shoulders and neck.

HSE guidance includes a range of advice which seeks to minimise the risk of RSI.  This includes guidance on the layout of workstations (furniture and equipment) and on work processes.

The HSE advises taking breaks from keyboard work of between five and ten minutes every hour, while the RSI Association recommends a break of a few minutes in each half hour.  The HSE also emphasises the importance of being relaxed, since RSI can be caused by tension and working under stress which tenses the muscles and restricts circulation.

Other steps to prevent RSI can include providing adjustable keyboards and wrist rests and ensuring users know how to use them properly, and providing copy/document holders and adequate space around the workstation as well.

RSI due to Mouse Use

Using a mouse may give rise to greater risks than using a keyboard because use of a mouse concentrates activity on one hand and on one or two fingers, which makes aches and pain in the fingers, hands, wrists, arms or shoulders more likely.

Epilepsy

Display screen use cannot cause epilepsy and is unlikely to cause problems to sufferers of most forms of epilepsy.  Photosensitive epilepsy, however, is a rare form of epilepsy which puts the sufferer at an increased risk of experiencing an attack through display screen work.  It is unlikely that this form of epilepsy would become apparent for the first time through working with display screens but, as a precaution, enquiries should be made of parents where children are known to be suffering from epilepsy or are in an epilepsy risk category.

Skin Rashes

Skin rashes are sometimes reported amongst display screen workers.  In many cases environmental factors contribute to this problem but static-electric fields building up around screens, low level X-ray emissions and ultraviolet radiation given off by screens may be linked to skin rashes.  Again, further research is needed into this association.

Stress

Stress has been identified as a problem amongst ICT workers.  Again, factors contributing to this have included hot and noisy environments, poor workplace design, machine failures and social isolation.  The best means of combating stress is by observing the need for regular breaks from continuous screen work.

Risks due to use of laptops

Many schools offer laptop computers to pupils and staff for use within and outside school.  Their portability is their main advantage.  Some children, or even staff, may, however, still find them too heavy.

Laptops have to be compact enough to be easy to carry, resulting in design compromises like smaller keyboards and screens.  Laptop work is therefore less comfortable than work at standard sized equipment during prolonged use.  Careful consideration needs to be given to where and how laptops are used in schools.  It is worth noting that it is possible to purchase regular-sized keyboards to attach to these computers.  Staff who spend a lot of time at home working on their own laptop computer may wish to consider this.  For staff who do so, see also the checklist below.

Specific training and information should be given for laptop users on minimising risks, including sitting comfortably, angling the screen to minimise reflections and, wherever possible, placing the laptop on a firm surface at the right height for keying.

The HSE has suggested that the following ergonomic factors be taken into account when choosing portable computers:

  • choose a lighter weight model of 3kg or less, with a large and clear screen (14 inch diagonal or more;
  • select one with the longest battery life possible;
  • choose a lightweight carry case with handle and shoulder straps.

Smartphones and tablets

The main hazards inherent in such equipment are:

  • repetitive strain injury (RSI).  The small size of the keyboards fitted on such devices can lead to RSI problems;
  • musculo-skeletal disorders arising from the posture adopted when using tablets and other mobile devices;
  • eye strain and visual fatigue caused by squinting to view the small screen; and
  • stress - arising from the fact that the device is always on, so the user feels that he or she is always at work.

Other hazards stem from the locations in which such portable devices are used.  Back pain and general musculo-skeletal disorders can arise from their use in unsuitable places such as trains and cafes.  Fears of theft of the equipment lead to stress and anxiety about personal safety, whilst for those who literally use such technology ‘on the move’ there is the very real risk of injuries arising as a result of slips, trips and falls.

Small communications devices are of course subject to the Display Screen Equipment Regulations 1992, if they are in use for prolonged periods as part of someone’s work.  The HSE is aware of anecdotal reports of wrist and thumb pain arising from the heavy use of thumbs in typing words onto such handheld devices, and advises that any such risks should be managed in the normal way, i.e. the employer should carry out a risk assessment as they would for a laptop computer.  The HSE also recommends that smartphone users should avoid heavy usage of the equipment in poor working environments, such as where the conditions are cramped or there is inadequate lighting. 

Where full-sized DSE equipment is available, e.g. back in the office, there is no need to use small palm-top devices, and smartphone users are advised to take more frequent breaks to compensate for the ergonomic disadvantages inherent in the equipment.

Many staffs now make use of tablet computers.  These devices offer convenience and flexibility but can pose their own health and safety problems.  For example, there is a tendency when using a tablet device to adopt an awkward posture which can lead to discomfort with prolonged use.  Researchers from Harvard University have found that tablet users keep their heads in more flexed positions when using tablets than positions used by typical computer users.  Working for long periods with the head slumped forward and the neck flexed can cause pain.  It is recommended that users change posture every 15 minutes and use a case that doubles as a tablet stand. 

The HSE states that staff who habitually use portable DSE equipment should be trained in how to minimise risks, for example by sitting comfortably, angling the screen so it is easy to read and taking frequent breaks. Wherever possible, portable DSE devices should be placed on a firm surface at a comfortable height. Where portables are in prolonged use at the user’s main place of work, additional steps can be taken to reduce risks, e g by using a docking station.

Electrical hazards

The Electricity at Work Regulations 1989 require all electrical systems and equipment to be constructed and maintained in a safe condition.  When planning a new computer installation, it is common for schools to discover they need some rewiring, especially as, until recently, few classrooms were built with adequate consideration of future requirements.

Power cables must be carried in trunking that separates them from voice and data cables.  Any cabling within ‘hand’s reach’ should be secured within trunking.  Sufficient space in main trunking routes should be designed to accommodate future needs.  Power cables should be secured and covered and should not trail.  All electrical work should be undertaken by suitably qualified staff.

Other issues to look out for are stray leads, trailing flexes, frayed leads, damaged plugs and coiled cables.  See NEU health and safety briefing Electrical Safety.

Asbestos

The installation of ICT cabling and other associated building work may disturb asbestos which may be present in ceiling tiles, insulation board and other materials.  Removal of asbestos- containing materials must be carried out by licensed contractors.  See NEU health and safety briefing Asbestos in Schools.

Wireless networks

Wireless internet connections are commonplace in schools, as well as in homes, public transport and other premises.

In 2007, the then Health Protection Agency (HPA), (now Public Health England (PHE)), began a research project to discover just how much of the energy transmitted from Wi-Fi equipment people do absorb.  One particular concern the research team set out to investigate was the effect of Wi-Fi networks on children.  In order to do this, scientists set up 15 laptop computers commonly used in UK schools in a laboratory and measured the strength of the radio waves around them. 

They found that even when the laptops were left transmitting continuously they measured very low RF exposures: maximum emissions were in the range 17 to 57 milliwatts (mW), which is well within the agreed Europe-wide limit of 100mW.  Researchers say the exposure would be lower still with the intermittent transmissions that occur in normal use and that emissions from Wi-Fi are likely to be lower than those from mobile phones and broadly the same as from other RF applications such as FM radios and TVs.

Based on these findings and previous research, the HPA concluded in 2009 that:

  • the level of exposure to radio waves as a result of working on laptops using Wi-Fi falls well within international safety guidelines;
  • there is no consistent evidence to date that exposure to radio waves from Wi-Fi or other wireless networks adversely affects the health of the general population; and
  • there is, therefore, no reason why schools and others should not use Wi-Fi equipment.

A 2012 report, however, by the Health Protection Agency’s independent Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation (AGNIR) concluded that there was still no convincing evidence that Wi-Fi technologies caused adverse effects on the health of adults or children.

More recently, the UK government confirmed their view on wi-fi in schools, in response to a parliamentary question. The DfE stated that it is for individual schools to make a decision about whether to implement wi-fi. It also advised that Public Health England is the lead for this issue, and their advice is that there is no reason why schools should not use wi-fi. The DfE advise that schools take ‘reasonable steps to ensure that staff and pupils are not exposed to health and safety risks by conducting a risk assessment and, if necessary, putting measures in place to minimise any known risk’.

Because of the conflicting nature of the available advice, the NEU would wish to see further research before we change our advice, which is that that, because there is no convincing scientific evidence of adverse health effects, we don't oppose its use in schools. This is in accordance with the TUC position. Whilst recognising that some remain concerned about the use of wi-fi, removal of wireless networks would be hugely disruptive for schools/colleges so we await further recommendations from the HSE and/or Department of Health before altering our guidance.  It is worth noting also that, in addition to the wireless networks in hotels, cafés, libraries and other public areas, many homes use wireless networks not just for computers, but in cordless telephones, burglar alarms and baby monitors.  If there is a need to protect children, while they spend a lot of time at school, they spend more time at home.

Where there is universal agreement, however, is on the need to restrict mobile phone use by children.  The Department of Health and Public Health England support this view[1] and the NEU agrees that it is sensible to restrict mobile phone use to essential situations, particularly for young children.   Implementing a ban on mobile phones in schools would, however, be hugely difficult.  Such a policy would be time-consuming and disruptive to enforce since it would involve searching pupils’ bags.

It is, of course, important to have wireless networks installed by specialists in accordance with the industry standards for network cabling.

Data projectors

Use of data projectors (or interactive whiteboard projectors) is widespread in schools. Certain precautions should be taken to avoid discomfort and possible damage to the eye.  Training in the safe use of the equipment is essential.

Recent advice from the HSE has established that the projector beam can damage peripheral vision.  Victims usually do not realise they have been affected until it is too late. 

According to the HSE there is a possibility that a viewer’s peripheral retina could be overexposed even when he or she is not actually staring at the projector’s apparent source.  A person would not look away because there would be no realisation that damage was being done and ‘no protective aversion response’.  However, the HSE have expressed confidence that teachers and children would not be at risk if they followed safety guidelines. NEU guidance on data projectors in schools is available here.

Action points for safety reps

Make sure that:

  • you secure your right to be involved in consultation on the introduction of ICT equipment in individual schools; and
  • you use the guidance set out above and the attached NEU checklist to ensure that proper consultation takes place and proper safety precautions are implemented and maintained.

[1] PHE states that ‘excessive use of mobile phones by children should be discouraged’.


 

Further information

Health and Safety Executive (HSE):

Work With Display Screen Equipment: Guidance on the DSE Regulations

Working with Display Screen Equipment: A brief guide

The DSE section of the HSE website includes Frequently Asked Questions and further guidance.  

HSE DSE workstation checklist

BECTA (British Educational Communications and Technology Agency):

BECTA was the government agency leading the national drive to ensure the effective and innovative use of technology throughout learning. BECTA provided a range of advice and guidance on ICT issues – including health and safety issues - in schools.  Regrettably, BECTA closed in March 2011 but its archived website is available here.

NEU Health and Safety Briefings:

Data projectors – Safe Use

Online Safety: NEU guidance and model policy

Computer safety and checklists

This briefing gives guidance on health and safety precautions for teachers and pupils working with information & communications technology (ICT) equipment, including computers, keyboards, display screens, laptops, tablets and smartphones.