Industry Denies Health Threat : Explosion in Use of VDTs Spurs Regulation Debate

Times Labor Writer

Over the last four years, a battle has been gradually developing in legislatures across the country over the efforts of women's groups and labor unions to regulate the use of an electronic tool that is dramatically changing millions of jobs.

That tool is the video display terminal, or VDT, a high-tech machine that is rapidly making the typewriter obsolete. About 13 million Americans are now using them, and electronics industry spokesmen estimate that by the turn of the century, 60 million VDTs will be in use in the United States.

The person who takes airline reservations on the telephone, dispatches a serviceman to fix a leaking gas line, transcribes doctors' reports in a hospital, answers questions about the cost of an auto insurance policy or writes a newspaper story is now or will soon be using a video display terminal. The VDT has become the cornerstone of the automated office.

Bills have been introduced in 20 states, including California, seeking some type of regulation of VDTs. Proponents have cited scientific studies showing that many workers who use the seemingly innocuous electronic appliances are suffering from eyestrain and eye fatigue, backaches and headaches, debilitating wrist injuries and psychological stress.

So far, however, lobbyists for VDT manufacturers and companies with large numbers of employees who use them have convinced most legislators that no laws are needed. They have argued that VDTs, machines that are a hybrid of the typewriter and the television set, are safe and that any problems workers have experienced can be solved by the voluntary efforts of employers.

In a vast majority of states where bills have been introduced, they have been killed in legislative committees.

However, in mid-June, the National Assn. of Working Women, also known as 9 to 5, and the Service Employees International Union announced a breakthrough in their "Campaign for VDT Safety." A statement by the two organizations trumpeted the fact that both houses of the Oregon Legislature had approved a bill regulating the operation of VDTs.

"The passage of this bill in Oregon is a tremendous breakthrough for the safe and productive use of VDTs across the U.S.," said Geri Palast, legislative director of the Service Employees union.

Short-Lived Victory

But the victory was short-lived. Oregon's Republican Gov. Victor G. Atiyeh vetoed the measure, which had been opposed by representatives of the electronics and newspaper industries, among others. The governor said he thought the measure was unnecessary because any problems caused by VDTs could be handled by existing laws.

Atiyeh also indicated that he thought such a law would be harmful to the state's business climate. Oregon has been making a big push to cultivate high-tech industries and has succeeded to such a degree that the area around Beaverton, a town just west of Portland, is now called "Silicon Forest." At present, the state's largest private employer is Beaverton-based Tektronix Inc., which manufactures VDTs.

The supporters of regulation said they are disappointed that Atiyeh nipped their triumph in the bud. But despite a series of legislative defeats, they say the clash over VDT safety is only beginning.

"One of the reasons we're so cheered is the issue didn't exist in the public mind five years ago--in terms of the impact of automation on people in offices," said Deborah Meyer, 9 to 5's director of public information. "We feel we've made people realize there are some drawbacks to using technology and it's time now to start addressing those things."

Matter of Concern

Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), the principal advocate of VDT regulation in California, said the advent of VDTs and how they are used is a matter of profound concern.

"I think it's one of the major issues of our time in terms of what importance we place on employees in the technological revolution," Hayden said.

"I don't want to slow down the technological revolution," said the legislator who also has authored a measure to give tax credits for computer contributions to schools. "But I want the human being to be considered more important than the machine."

Pat McCormick, the lobbyist for the Oregon Council of the American Electronics Assn., said he is pleased that no laws have been passed, but said he expects to be engaged in a long-term struggle over VDT regulation. "It's not an issue that will go away," he said in a recent interview.

In fact, some of the nation's largest corporations including AT&T;, Hewlett-Packard and IBM, and trade associations including the Electronics Assn., the American Insurance Assn., the Air Transport Assn. and the American Newspaper Publishers Assn., this year formed the Coalition for Office Technology to combat VDT regulation. Many of the group's 27 member organizations contributed $20,000 each to get the coalition started.

"We believe there is no health and safety hazard involved in the introduction of VDTs in the workplace," said Larry Zippin, chairman of the coalition, who also is executive vice president of the American Insurance Assn.

He said that the concern over VDTs is similar to the response that other new electronic products encountered when they came on the market.

"I remember when we got a television, my mother said to keep the light on and stay six feet away," Zippin said. "I remember concern over microwave ovens. I remember how some folks in offices were reluctant to have typewriters changed from manual to electric. It takes a little while for new technology to be accepted."

In lieu of legislation, industry should have its own educational programs on VDTs, as many companies already do, said Claudia James, a lawyer for the American Newspaper Publishers Assn. "We think that will allay people's fears and concerns. There are simple things that can be done in the workplace to improve worker comforts."

Oregon state Sen. Margie Hendriksen, a Democrat who introduced the bill that Atiyeh vetoed, agreed that there are "simple things" that can be done concerning the use of VDTs. But she said legislation is needed because the private sector would not do enough on its own to take care of problems that workers are experiencing with VDTs.

To buttress her argument, Hendriksen referred to a study released earlier this year by the New York-based Educational Fund for Individual Rights. According to that two-year study, only one in 10 companies adequately addresses VDT user comfort, health and safety.

The study, which involved site visits at 110 offices and interviews with more than 1,100 VDT workers, was directed by Dr. Alan Westin of Columbia University and funded by IBM and Hewlett-Packard and other computer equipment manufacturers.

The report projected that if employers did not begin to address VDT issues more seriously, the prospects for VDT legislation and regulation would increase.

Hendriksen's measure focused on ergonomics, the relationship between people and machines, which the Westin report said were being poorly handled.

The bill directed a state agency to educate workers and employers on safe use of VDTs. It also directed Oregon officials to develop guidelines for the purchase, installation and use of VDTs and work stations.

"A lot of times improper work stations are used because of lack of knowledge. A company spends thousands on machines and then puts them on crummy desks that make it difficult to work on the machines," Hendriksen said.

The guidelines, which would have directly affected Oregon's 100,000 state and local government employees, were supposed to ensure that any employee who used a video display terminal four or more hours a day worked in a correct posture position, with minimal eyestrain and was given adequate rest periods.

The bill did not even attempt to deal with some of the most frequently mentioned health hazards, such as radiation, which unions and women's organizations have been raising about VDTs for the last several years.

Nor did it address concerns, expressed particularly by women, about reports of problem pregnancies experienced by clusters of VDT operators. Hendriksen said there is no definitive evidence that working on a VDT leads to birth defects, so the bill stayed away from this issue.

Two years ago, Hendriksen introduced a more comprehensive bill that would have covered all employees in the state and contained broader protections for workers. "That bill freaked out all the employers," she said. One large corporation announced that it was so opposed to the bill that if it should pass, the company would cancel plans to locate a central data handling and dispatch terminal in the state.

Hendriksen's first bill died in committee. But a special bipartisan study commission was formed and Hendriksen's new measure emerged from hearings the commission held in 1984.

Industry Opposition

Several major industry groups, including the Computer Business Equipment Manufacturers Assn. and the American Newspaper Publishers, opposed the 1985 bill even though it did not apply to private sector employees. Hendriksen said this was a sign of just how opposed industry was to any regulation.

The publishers group, like other opponents of legislation, feared the potentially catalytic impact of the Oregon bill being signed into law. That anxiety was expressed by George Cashau, the association's director of technical research, in a March speech to southern publishers: "I would like to warn you that there is a determined effort to get a bill passed in any one state in the hopes that it will start a domino effect. I do not guarantee that it will not happen."

Hendriksen said she also was troubled by the contention that enacting legislation would send a "bad signal" to the business community. "Germany has regulations and no one can say they're anti-economic development," Hendriksen said.

Indeed, West Germany's equipment safety law includes very detailed VDT regulations covering a wide range of factors. These include the design of the terminal, plus the size, luminance (degree of light) and flicker rate of the characters on the terminal screen. In addition, the regulations require that the desks on which the terminals are placed be of a certain height and width, and that the keyboard be detachable, have a certain tilt and have a non-reflective finish.

Eye Examinations

The Germans also require that persons using VDTs on the job have an eye examination before taking up their jobs on a terminal, and follow-up exams every five years for persons under 45 and every three years for persons over 45.

Hayden said it is ironic that some American manufacturers are making terminals for export that have to meet stiffer standards in West Germany and other European countries, such as Norway and Sweden, than they do here. He called this phenomenon "reverse dumping," referring to the practices of some chemical companies that have sold products abroad that have been banned in the United States.

Hayden was unsuccessful in getting VDT bills approved in either 1984 or 1985. This year the two VDT measures he introduced were killed in committee. But, like Hendriksen, he said he would continue to press the issue.

Several of the bills introduced this year were considerably more sweeping than the one in Oregon. For example, one of Hayden's measures would have set health and safety guidelines and ergonomical standards for VDT operators. It would have directed employers to ensure that all VDT work station equipment, including VDT components and light sources, be adjustable.

Semiannual Inspections

A measure introduced in Connecticut would have required employers to inspect and maintain VDTs twice a year and to provide annual ophthalmological exams for workers. An Iowa bill would have required adjustable furniture, ways to reduce glare, mandatory rest breaks and alternative work during pregnancy. A proposed law in Maryland would have combined equipment design standards, radiation testing and "right-to-know" provisions requiring employers to provide detailed information to employees about the known and suspected dangers of VDT work.

A few of the bills, including one introduced in Rhode Island last year, call only for study commissions. Those measures also have faced opposition, but the one in Rhode Island passed.

At present, it is considered unlikely that Congress or the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration will enact laws or regulations governing VDTs. And as long as there are no federal standards, unions will continue to advocate the need for state laws, said David Eisen, research director for the Newspaper Guild, who has been working on the issue for almost a decade.

Some Positive Action

In some states, the VDT Safety Coalition has received positive action without the need for legislation. In New Mexico for example, Gov. Toney Anaya earlier this year issued an executive order governing the future purchase of VDTs for state offices. Among other requirements, the terminals will have to have screens that tilt to help relieve eye, back and neck strain. (California, Colorado and Massachusetts also have promulgated purchasing specifications for some state offices, although they are not as strong as New Mexico's.)

Judy McCullough, the Southwest field organizer for 9 to 5, said the New Mexico regulations could be significant even though they apply only to state employees. "It will have an impact on private employers," McCullough said. "They will have to keep pace with what the state does."

That assertion is debatable, but clearly the electronics industry is not happy with Anaya's action. "On a scale of 1 to 10, it's a 6 or a 7 in terms of being bad," said Gary Conkling, governmental affairs director for Tektronix, the Oregon VDT firm. He said that manufacturers fear that they will have to comply with different specifications in various states, leading to increased costs.

Conkling said purchasing order specifications would not be effective because government could not keep up-to-date with changes being made in the equipment. "The market is driving manufacturers to make their equipment more user-friendly," he added.

Collective Bargaining

Numerous opponents of government action said that collective bargaining rather than legislation is the appropriate response to problems at individual work sites.

In several instances in recent years, unions have gained contractual protections for employees using VDTs. Last November, workers at Equitable Life Assurance Society's Syracuse, N.Y., office secured major improvements in working conditions when the company signed a contract with the Service Employees District 925. Among other things, the contract requires the company to provide glare-reducing screens, detachable keyboards, adjustable chairs and periodic VDT maintenance.

The workers also will be given access to data on their productivity obtained by company monitoring. VDT operators complain that monitoring--which can measure the employee's arrival and departure time, keyboard speed, number of errors, frequency of breaks and other measurements of performance--is likely to be a subject of future legislation and labor negotiations.

Still, most office workers--about 85% of the persons currently using VDTs on the job fit in that classification--have no union representation, noted Pam Haynes, the health and safety director for the Air Transport Employees Union who also serves as co-chair of the Los Angeles VDT Task Force.

Along the same line, Jackie Ruff, director of the Service Employees' clerical division, stressed the fact that scientific studies have shown that VDT-related health problems are generally worse for people doing the routine, monotonous tasks many office workers perform.

Underlying the legislative battles is an ongoing debate about the safety of VDTs. The medical literature is growing rapidly.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and other scientists in the United States and abroad have documented the physical discomfort and stress experienced by VDT users.

Some of those problems are attributable to the fact that using a VDT is quite different from using a typewriter, noted Diana Roose, director of research for 9 to 5. A person using a typewriter rolls paper in and out of the machine, often uses a carriage return and periodically stops to file away the finished product. In most instances, the VDT eliminates all those steps. One study showed that a person who could type 15 pages in an hour could generate the equivalent of 25 pages on a VDT, a major increase in production that places increased strain on a worker.

"Virtually every survey of VDT users has found a range of 50% to 91% reported chronic eye problems, such as strain, fatigue and irritation, or more severe problems such as chronic myopia," Roose said.

She acknowledged that scientific studies have not demonstrated a clear-cut relationship between the VDT and permanent eye damage such as cataracts. She quickly added that there may not have been enough time since the introduction of VDTs in the last decade for such injuries to develop.

High Complaint Rate

"A high rate" of muscular-skeletal complaints among workers also has been revealed in several surveys, Roose noted. For example, one Swedish study showed that 54.8% of insurance workers using VDTs complained of eye problems, 43.7% of back problems, 30.3% complained of headaches, 15% neck problems, 25% shoulder problems and 18.8% wrist problems. The study also found that the more time a person worked on a terminal the more likely it was that the individual would develop health problems.

Acting at the request of the San Francisco-Oakland Newspaper Guild, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in 1981 released "the first comprehensive evaluation" of the job stress problem among VDT operators.

"The major finding of (the) investigation is that working with VDTs is associated with high levels of job stress," the report noted. The survey showed that "significantly more clerical VDT operators reported job stress health problems than did professionals using VDTs or control subjects."

Roose said there is a "small but growing" number of workers' compensation claims that have been settled in favor of VDT workers for what is known as cumulative trauma injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome (an inflammation of wrist ligaments that ultimately can cause a person to lose his grip).

She also referred to a recent North Carolina study done for the Communications Workers of America showing that one of every five women who worked on VDTs suffered angina, a condition marked by recurrent pain in the chest and left arm caused by a sudden decrease of the blood supply to the heart muscle. That was twice the rate for survey respondents who did not use a terminal.

On the other hand, opponents of regulation stress that many studies show VDTs to be safe. At a congressional hearing last year, Dr. J. Donald Millar, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, said that VDTs have "produced impressively few problems" for operators.

"VDTs are safe to use and pose no unusual health problems," said Charles Abernathy, manager of human factors for Digital Equipment Corp., told a congressional subcommittee in May, 1984. "Concerns about eye discomfort, glare and musculoskeletal aches for VDT operators can be effectively addressed by appropriate work station design."

The health issues that are the subject of the most intense debate are whether VDTs emit dangerous levels of radiation and whether using a terminal can have harmful effects on a pregnancy. Last year, Millar said that radiation emissions from VDTs are not hazardous. However, he cautioned Congress, "Although we do not see any physiologic mechanisms whereby VDTs could impair reproductive function, as yet we do not have the information to definitively rule out an effect of VDTs on reproduction."

Problem Pregnancy Clusters

Nonetheless, there have been several reported problem pregnancy clusters in the United States and Europe. For example, at a United Airlines reservation center in San Francisco, 24 of 48 pregnancies among the workers there led to problems, according to a 9 to 5 report. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health did an evaluation but said it could not reach any "substantive conclusions" because not enough women responded to the survey.

In June, the Service Employees union and 9 to 5 announced plans for a $1-million, four-year study to determine if there is a connection between VDT use and pregnancy problems. The study will be done by New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine, which has conducted considerable ground-breaking research on several occupational health hazards, including the relationship between working with asbestos and lung cancer.

"Until the facts are in, the operators should have the right to take preventive measures if they wish," said Roose, referring to proposals that female VDT users be allowed to secure alternative work in their companies for the term of a pregnancy. A number of employers are allowing such transfers, according to a survey by the Bureau of National Affairs, but there is no law on this subject.

Proponents of regulation also have reminded legislators that many occupational health hazards such as asbestos-related diseases were not discovered until years after thousands of workers had been exposed to the hazard. Then it was too late for them to be helped.

Hayden said that if the proponents of VDT regulation are to succeed they will have to wage a sophisticated educational campaign about the nature of office work, an issue he said he was sensitized to while his wife, Jane Fonda, was making the film "9 to 5," a comedy with political overtones about the lives of clerical workers.

"There's a very deep cultural bias about office work being light stuff," Hayden said. "But stress is real, not imagined. People do get carpal tunnel syndrome and have to have operations on their wrists. People do have chronic back problems. We don't do anything about it because culturally we don't take women's work seriously."

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