ICL lives up to health criteria

SCEPTICS are being forced to rethink their opinion ergonomic computer equipment after the surprising success of ICL's line of PCs in Asia.

The British computer firm launched the line last August to doubts about how well it would market.

But it has been stealing share from rivals in Asia.

The success, where ICL has not been known as a PC supplier, has been attributed to the computer's ergonomic features.

Ergonomics is the study of person's relationship to his or her working environment. In computing, it generally examines the best design of a system and how it can help productivity.

Many of those attending the ICL launch appreciated the technology, but were sceptical about the marketing strength of ergonomics. Employers in Asia, especially Hong Kong, are not noted for their concern for workers' comfort.

Now, they are being forced look more closely.

''We've found that many businessmen are interested in the ergonomic message,'' said Jenny Plaister, Asia manager for ICL Personal Systems.

There is something in ICL's ergonomic message - other firms have taken up the torch.

Part of the reason ICL is ahead of the game is that its machines are designed in Europe where, since the end of last year, new PCs have had to conform to strict European Community regulations that safeguard employee health.

The question has been raised if it should be an issue in Asia.

The strong consensus is that it should - and for several reasons.

Computer makers here, if they want to sell into Europe, will have to conform to the regulations.

Employees should expect their health to be safeguarded.

Employers will find productivity increases.

So what are the issues? The biggest source of debate has surrounded screen technology.

For years, there have been allegations that the non-ionising radiation from a computer screen can cause pregnancy disorders.

These have prompted both government and independent studies.In most, no evidence was found linking screen radiation to pregnancy disorders.

Some studies, though, found that pregnant women working with VDUs did have a higher chance of suffering from medical problems, but concluded they were more likely to be the result of additional stress, rather than radiation.

This is the World Health Organisation's position.

Even so, many manufacturers have limited the amount of radiation emitted.

Eyes are more commonly affected by VDUs.

It is proven that it is common for users to complain of headaches after a long period working in front of a computer.

There can be several causes for the headache.

Squinting and increased concentration.

A screen's flickering, which often is unnoticed. Flickering fluorescent lights can have the same effect.

Either too much or not enough light on the screen.

Large corporations, such as the BBC, have become so concerned - especially of law suits - that employees are expected to have their eyesight tested regularly.

However, there is debate about whether any screen can eliminate all the risks to a worker.

But there are safeguards.

Office lighting balanced correctly can cut glare and eye strain and fatigue.

Flatter screens also reduce glare.

Examine the refresh rate of the screen - the faster it is the less likelihood there is of headaches or eye strain.

The same goes for a denser pixel ratio (the dots that make up a screen character).

The positioning of the screen and other tools, in particular the keyboard and the chair, can help reduce strain and fatigue.

According to British Health and Safety Executive research, the best angle should be looking down at the screen at an angle of 15 to 20 degrees.

However, even this, the ''ergonomic positioning'', is being rethought.

While good design can alleviate some problems, the scientists now think people shift around because the body is seeking what is most healthy for it at that particular time.

By also varying keyboard height RSI or repetitive strain injury - another real problem that has arisen from computerisation - can be helped.

In Europe, Australia and the United States thousands of cases have come to light of people seriously damaging their wrists by spending long periods on the keyboard.

performing repetitive tasks.

It has cost firms millions of dollars in compensation.

This last point may be the most effective in persuading employers to pay attention to ergonomics. Staff suffering from poor eyesight, constant fatigue, backache, neck ache and RSI produce less. Rest periods and better equipment can end up saving a firm thousands of dollars in better productivity - and the workers' health.