A former Guardian freelancer has been paid £37,500 to settle a repetitive strain injury claim. A health & safety law expert said today that the case should serve as a wake-up call to employers about the need for workplace assessments.
Andrea Osbourne worked as a freelance subeditor for the newspaper two-and-a-half years, mainly on the website. She claimed to work almost exclusively using a mouse, at speed, for an average of nine hours a night, and up to 45 hours a week, without a break.
Osbourne was supported by the National Union of Journalists and represented by its lawyers, Thompsons. The firm claims that, 15 months after starting work, Osbourne developed stiffness and pain in her right elbow. Her GP gave her a cortisone injection to ease the pain and recommended that she seek help from her employer, since the waiting list for NHS physiotherapy was so long. According to Osbourne, The Guardian's HR department refused to help. She claims she was told that access to the company physio was only available to permanent members of staff. Eventually she was unable to bend her elbow and she was unable to continue working. The movement in her elbow only returned after nine months of rest and physio.
The Guardian has made no admission of liability. In a statement it said it was "saddened" by Osbourne's version of events, which it disputes, adding that it takes "extremely seriously" the welfare of all its permanent, freelance and casual employees.
Simon Joyston-Bechal, a partner with Pinsent Masons who advises employers on avoiding health & safety liabilities, described Osbourne's case as a wake-up call for employers.
"Regulations require employers to assess all workstations for health and safety risks," he said. "Many find this difficult to achieve for all workers. But some don't even try."
He pointed out that many staff routinely spend their working day hunched over a laptop, peering at a tiny screen. "Employers are asking for trouble if they turn a blind eye," he warned.
The Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations were passed in 1992 and updated 10 years later. They cover more than just monitors. The whole workstation, including input devices, which would include a mouse, must be assessed. They also require that employers "plan the activities" of staff to ensure that their daily work at computer screens is "periodically interrupted by such breaks or changes of activity as reduce their workload at that equipment."