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Laptop thigh is the latest thing to worry about in the workplace

Posted on November 30, 2016 by Fresh Workspace

Modern life afflicts us daily with new and pernicious ways of harming ourselves. One of the most recently identified has been named by researchers at the University of Basel as ‘Laptop Thigh’. Caused by prolonged exposure of the skin to moderate heat, the physical condition itself is nothing new. It goes by the medical name of erythema ab igne. What is new is that where once doctors were most likely to see it on the skin of workers in bakeries or old ladies who’d spent too much time in contact with a hot water bottle, it is now more closely associated with people spending long periods at home with a laptop slow-roasting their legs. Laptops can reach temperatures of as much as 50 Celsius, so it’s little wonder they can cause the skin some damage over time. What is interesting in the reports is that the condition is so closely associated with changes in the way we work. It is a social and economic ailment as much as it is a physical one.

The good news is that it usually clears up pretty quickly. However it may be a sign of more trouble to come and that is where facilities managers need to pay it some heed. What the growing prevalence of the condition highlights is that people are working in ways at home that would be completely unacceptable in an office. As well as lightly toasted thighs, they are likely to be storing up less visible but more damaging conditions related to poor ergonomics.

Certainly no workplace would countenance staff working in armchairs with a laptop on their knee for hours at a time. Yet organisations accept it for their growing numbers of home workers. According to a recent report from the CBI, working from home has soared in popularity with two thirds of businesses making use of it, a huge jump when you consider that a year previously it was under a half of all firms. If you go back to 2004, it was only around one in ten.

BT has highlighted a crucial gap in our approach to home working in a survey which found that while 83 per cent of businesses provide staff with mobile and wireless gadgets such as laptops and Blackberries to promote flexible working, only 62 per cent back this up with formal ‘working from home’ policies.

The uptake in flexible has been encouraged by both the pull of business necessity and the push of legislation which has given an increasing number of employees the right to work flexibly. What was originally seen as an alternative to the 9-5 is now more normally something that people do in addition to traditional work in their traditional workplaces. The home is not an alternative to the workplace but its annexe.

The health and safety issues involved are complex, but all rely on one fundamental principle; workers have the same rights and needs wherever they are. The company has the same obligations to its homeworking employees as it does to its office based staff. Many of these obligations are laid out in the Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA) and include the need to supply appropriate equipment, carry out risk assessments, offer training and generally provide a safe working environment. Related legislation such as Display Screen Equipment Regulations is equally applicable.

However, this is not a matter solely about equipment and legislation but is also one about management. We all have an obligation to accept that it is clearly not acceptable to work with a laptop on our knees for hours at a time. We wouldn’t do it in the office, so we shouldn’t do it at home.