Computer Vision Syndrome: Relief Is in Sight

By Chambers, Anne | Occupational Hazards, October 1999 | Go to article overview

Computer Vision Syndrome: Relief Is in Sight


Chambers, Anne, Occupational Hazards


New remedies take on a growing workplace problem.

Judged by any quantitative measure, computer vision syndrome (CVS) is clearly emerging as one of today's biggest occupational health problems.

Just consider the numbers. There are more than 70 million personal computers across the United States. According to the American Optometric Association, nearly 90 percent of people using those PCs for more than three hours a day suffer from eye trouble, causing more than 12 million of them to seek treatment. That treatment comes at a cost of more than $2 billion a year to health plans.

At the root of all this expense and suffering is a familiar cast of discomforts:

* Eyestrain (sore or fatigued eyes).

* Headache.

* Slowness in changing focusing distance.

* Blurred vision after close-up work.

* Eye irritation (burning, dryness, redness).

* Contact lens discomfort.

* Neck, back and shoulder pain due to poor posture.

Computer users have been complaining about each of these since PCs became fixtures of the home and workplace. We now know that they are often interrelated within the condition medical research has defined as CVS.

Costly Hit

Most experts expect CVS to soon surpass carpal tunnel syndrome as the most-common workplace health issue. In line with that unwelcome expectation, the insurance industry is warning employers to prepare for the next wave of computer-related injury claims: repetitive stress of the eye muscles.

Moreover, the current trend toward doing nearly everything online is only going to accelerate things. As more people use the Internet to do more things -- at work and at home -- the problems of CVS are sure to increase even faster. Higher health insurance premiums and HMO fees will logically follow suit.

This is all a lot of trouble to be caused by a disorder that didn't even have a formal name until recently. But CVS is a very real and growing problem for employers and employees.

Practical implications, in the form of lost productivity and absenteeism alone, are compelling. The Journal of the American Optometric Association cites recent studies by Dr. James Sheedy of the University of California at Berkeley, a principal investigator of CVS. Sheedy's research has shown that minor visual degradations can lower worker productivity from 4 percent to 19 percent on common office and work tasks.

That could translate into an efficiency drop costing from $1,200 to $5,700 a year for a typical clerical worker with an annual salary of $30,000, or as much as $15,200 a year for an in-demand computer professional with a salary of $80,000. In all cases, the employer takes this "hidden" hit on productivity.

Because nearly 80 percent of our learning comes through the eyes, any vision difficulties will slow and impede everyday learning and comprehension processes that make for good on-the-job performance. Computer vision syndrome amplifies the effects into a serious disorder with bottom-line consequences for business.

How CVS Happens

At home or at work, computers play an integral part of our daily lives. We use them more and more to accomplish personal and job-related tasks. They usually make things simpler, but at a cost: We have to spend more time in front of CRT screens watching pixels and electrons.

As a result, our eyes must continually refocus, something that is unnatural for the human optical system. In a typical office, we also routinely switch attention back and forth between the close-up screen and paper documents or publications on our desks, thereby putting even more stress on the eyes.

This continual refocusing sets off a chain of effects that ultimately leads to CVS:

* While using a computer, the average person blinks about four to six times per minute, significantly less than the normal rate of 22 blinks per minute that keeps eyes naturally moistened. …

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