Computers in the workplace

THE video-display terminal (VDT) is having a revolutionary impact on the workplace. As much as one-fourth of American workers now shift figures and words on computers rather than on paper; the industry says that share will swell to one-third by 1990. The advantages of speed, ease, and vastly increased production are obvious.

Less clear is what specific health and social effects the VDTs may be having on workers themselves.

Suffolk County, N.Y., last week passed the first law regulating the use of terminals in the workplace: Companies using 20 or more terminals must provide special lighting, adjustable chairs and desks, and breaks every three hours, and pay most of the cost of annual employee eye exams and eyeglasses.

Six states and two dozen smaller jurisdictions have similar legislation pending. A number of unions and concerned groups such as the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health have adopted their own VDT guidelines.

Organizations representing workers, always on the lookout for ways in which new developments in the workplace may put employees at a disadvantage, are understandably delighted with the new law; they hope it will serve as a model. A recent study sponsored by the AFL-CIO and 9 to 5, the National Association of Working Women, calls VDT-related health problems a ``serious national threat.''

Predictably, the business community protests that the fuss is overrated and that VDT regulation is unnecessary and meddlesome.

At the very least the new focus on how workers relate to their terminals should remind employers and computer manufacturers of the importance of providing a balanced, civilized work environment. Whether punching away at a keyboard or attaching machinery parts on an assembly line, any worker needs frequent variety and breaks, particularly if the stint is long and in a windowless room.

Humanely designed jobs are not only more satisfying; they are usually, as a consequence, more productive. Alienated workers are not a happy lot to have around.

The shift from typewriters to VDTs at the office bears watching. Medical research linking strains and stresses directly to the VDT is not yet definitive. Getting straight answers in that area is likely to be tough. In the meantime, employers will serve themselves best if they give a sympathetic ear to worker complaints. It is a time to listen and step up the research.

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