Screen semantics

In the era of increasing availability of smartphones for personal and professional use, a question seems obvious. Should smartphones count as display screen equipment?

Remember the BlackBerry? This revolutionary device, with mobile email, was launched in 1999, with voice-calling capabilities added in 2002. The first iPhone was not introduced, believe or not, until 2007. Since then, smartphones have become ubiquitous, with the 2016 Deloitte Mobile Consumer Survey suggesting that four out of five UK adults now have a smartphone – equivalent to 37 million people.

Vision of the future

Predictably, the smartphone has also become widely used in the workplace. With screens becoming ever larger and applications more varied, this raises questions over whether smartphones should count as display screen equipment (DSE).

The DSE regulations have been in force since 1992 and were last amended in 2002. Even if the earliest smartphones were considered in the legislation, HSE could not be expected to foresee the tumultuous rise of the use of smartphones in the workplace. However, while these devices are not referenced specifically in the regulations, perhaps surprisingly, smartphones are actually covered by the DSE regulations and employers need to understand the implications.

It is now more widely understood that employees classed as ‘screen users’ must be provided with eyecare. This comprises regular eye and eyesight testing and the provision of glasses, if required solely for DSE use. The precise details as to who counts as a ‘screen user’ are complex, relating to length and frequency of use of DSE. What is interesting, however, is that the specifics mean that they do indeed relate to the use of smartphones and are ahead of the time when they were drafted.

Any portable equipment in regular use by an employee, for a significant part of his or the normal working role, should be covered by the DSE regulations. Photograph: iStock/Emir Memedovski

Prolonged use

HSE guidance clearly states in the FAQs on its website that “portable DSE such as laptops and handheld devices are subject to the regulations if in prolonged use for work purposes”. Moreover, regulation 1.4.d specifically excludes only “portable systems not in prolonged use”. It is, therefore, the length of time employees are using screens and the frequency of use that is more relevant than the type or size of screen.

There are no definitive timings set out in the regulations but it seems reasonable to conclude that any portable equipment in regular use by an employee, for a significant part of his or her normal working role, should be regarded as covered by the DSE regulations.

Definitive proof

It is paragraph 25 of the Guidance on Regulations booklet where the HSE finally mentions mobile phones specifically. This is in reference to regulation 1.4.e, which states the exclusion of “calculators, cash registers or any equipment having a small data or measurement display required for direct use of the equipment”. This states that exclusions apply to such items as cardiac monitors and oscilloscopes but goes on to say that “with the merging of information and communication technologies, small screens are increasingly used for a wider range of purposes”. Examples are given as being “mobile phones and personal organisers that can be used to compose and edit text, view images or connect to the Internet”.

So, finally, we have definitive guidance that mobile phones are subject to the DSE regulations. The circumstances would need to be assessed and it is subject to a mobile phone being in ‘prolonged use’ for work purposes. The same considerations would apply as they do to all devices deemed as covered by the DSE regulations, relating to frequency of use, employees needing to apply high levels of attention and concentration to the DSE task, being highly dependent on the DSE, or having little choice about using it to perform the working role. The guidance is clear, however, that this relates to the use of the phone screen, and is, therefore, really only associated with smartphones, as phones used only for spoken conversation are excluded because their display screens are incidental to this use.

Extent of the issue

The very latest figures show the extent of the issue. Research undertaken by Opinium on behalf of Specsavers Corporate Eyecare in November 2017 among 502 senior decision makers in UK businesses suggests that, on average, employers class two thirds (66%) of their employees as ‘smartphone users’. Under the DSE regulations, these employees should be receiving workplace eyecare. Yet just a quarter (25%) of employers provide eyecare for all smartphone users and 18% of employers provide eyecare for some smartphone users.

Working patterns are changing and smartphones are increasingly being used for a wide range of work-related tasks, on a regular, prolonged, basis. It is important, therefore, for employers to consider smartphone use under the remit of the DSE regulations. Many employees now accept the smartphone as a common tool in their working life and these employees should, accordingly, be provided with DSE eyecare in the same manner as their colleagues using more traditional computer screens at work stations. Providing regular workplace eyecare is a simple case of looking after the wellbeing of employees and should not be limited by negligible differences and semantics.

DSE regulations available here 

Jim Lythgow is director of strategic alliances at Specsavers Corporate Eyecare