There is no requirement under Victorian OHS legislation to provide specific breaks to computer/VDU users. However, all workers are entitled to breaks under their award/agreement (see this FAQ on Rest/Meal breaks).
In addition to this, under Section 21 of the OHS Act, an employer has to provide safe and healthy systems of work - so what might this mean with respect to breaks and computer users?
The WorkSafe publication Officewise: A guide to health and safety in the office gives the following advice in relation to reducing the job demands of VDU work through good design:
The physical, social and psychological capabilities and needs of people should be considered in the design of work.
Rest or work breaks can range from short pauses to defined breaks such as lunch. Answering the phone or collecting a document from the printer are short breaks that provide different movements. They are an opportunity for muscles that have been active in computer use to rest and recover.
It is important to include task variety in the design of work. This is best done by mixing intensive keyboard use and other computer use wit a variety of other work. It is important that the different tasks involve a change in posture and muscles used to perform the work.
It is also important to provide work with a variety of tasks, different mental demands, changes in posture and defined work breaks as the day progresses.
Where a variety of alternative tasks are not available, it is important to have more work pauses away from the task. The length of the pauses and how often they are taken depends on the work, the person, and other factors. Frequent short pauses are preferable to infrequent longer pauses.
Management and unions in some organisations have developed agreements and guidelines which take account of the factors at individual workplaces and provide for pauses for fixed lengths of time.
Further, there are now many health issues to do with sedentary work (read more) which the employer needs to be aware of.
The ACTU Guidelines on Screen Based Work were written to assist in negotiating policies on screen based work generally. With regard to breaks, the Guidelines recommend the following:
Job design should be used to limit both the length of continuous periods spent at screen based work, and the total time spent at screen based work. Designing breaks between periods of screen based work allows for periods of recovery following periods of exposure, and limits the total exposure to the hazards of screen based work.
Limiting Exposure to Screen Based Work
It is recommended that workers should be provided with other work that takes them right away from the screen for at least half their working time.
Job design for screen based work should make provision for regular breaks of at least 15 minutes per hour for concentrated screen based work, and 15 minutes per 2 hours for less strenuous work.
Some workplaces have adopted a standard of 10 minutes break after 50 minutes of screen based work, or 5 minutes break after 25 minutes work.
There is evidence to suggest that more frequent but shorter breaks are more beneficial.
Rest breaks should be recuperative, and take place away from the VDU. Breaks should not involve any visually demanding tasks (ones that require sustained focus at a distance less than 30 cm or between 50 and 150 cm, according to Comcare Australia), nor should they involve repetitive motions. During breaks, the eyes should refocus at a variety of distances, and expansive movements that exercise different muscle groups in the neck, shoulders, arms, hands, and fingers, will help to relieve muscular fatigue.
If there is no policy on screen based work at your workplace, this could be something to be negotiated at the OHS Committee level.
Contact your union for further information and advice.
- From the UK's HSE: Working safely with display screen equipment.
- From the Ontario (Canada) Ministry of Labour, Training, and Skills Development: Rest Breaks for Computer Operators
- An interesting article in The Wall Street Journal, which looks also at not reducing productivity: How to Take Better Breaks From Your Screen
Last amended September 2021