The Eyes Have It

Vision-screening software determines who needs professional ocular attention and who needs ergonomic intervention.

IF you're reading this column online, it's probably too late. You may well already have it, whether or not you're even aware of it. And even if you're reading a hard copy, if you're otherwise a regular computer user, there's a good chance you are afflicted with it, too.

"It" is Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS), a relatively new and widespread occupational hazard reserved almost exclusively for those of us who spend two or more hours a day in front of a computer screen (closed circuit television users are also susceptible). Symptoms can include headaches, eyestrain, double or blurred vision, dry/burning/red/watery eyes, neck/shoulder/back pains, difficulty focusing, forehead heaviness, light sensitivity, and sore eyes in general. It reads more like a description of how you might feel the morning after a New Year's Eve party, I know, but there is a difference. A lengthy period of time is required for CVS to develop, as well as for the afflicted to recover. But at least recovery is an option.

Field of Vision
Estimated percentages vary somewhat, but the consensus among those in the industry is that CVS affects about 80 percent of the 175 million computer users in the United States. Information at the Bausch & Lomb Web site cites a million new cases of CVS each year. American Optometric Association surveys of computer workers show eye and vision problems are the most frequently reported health-related problems, occurring roughly three and a half times more than reports of carpal tunnel syndrome.

Such facts and figures prompted the Web designers for Corporate Vision Consulting (www.cvconsulting.com) to emblazon front and center on the site's homepage the following eye-catching statement regarding CVS: "If you use a computer, you've probably got it!" Statistically, you probably do.

The Corporate Vision Consulting site is a virtual warehouse of CVS information, exhaustively exploring the syndrome's causes and cures with a near-CVS-inducing amount of material on the subject. As its name implies, the company offers various consulting services, seminars, publications, and training, all designed for easing eyestrain among computer users, particularly in corporate and educational environments.

What really sets the site apart, though, is its offering of a software program called the Eye-CEE (Computer Ergonomic Evaluation) System for Computer Users®, an interactive vision-screening program that allows screenees to test themselves right in their own workstations, on their own monitors. Company president Jeffrey Anshel, O.D., touts the tool as not only an effective identifier and preventative of CVS, but also as a system that can, when used as part of a company's health and safety program, decrease possible worker's compensation claims and increase employees' overall efficiency.

"Vision problems may go undetected because they are painless and slow to develop," he said. "The Eye-CEE System for Computer Users can help discover CVS before it affects the worker's productivity."

Anshel noted the program is not a substitute for regular visits to an optometrist or ophthalmologist but is intended rather as a cost-effective supplement to professional eye care that actually can give doctors much more information to go on in resolving a possible problem. Site licenses range from $2.90 to $8 per employee, depending on the number of users, and free technical support is available for the duration of the licensing agreement.

Optical Options
A demo of the software is easily downloadable from the site and begins with a series of questions about the user's visual and working conditions, including specific inquiries regarding the display-screen set-up, lighting, and so forth. The program then carries out a sequence of visual tests designed specifically for computer users, testing visual acuity; searching, scanning, and tracking skills; muscle balance; eye coordination; depth perception; blind spots; and text readability. At the end, based on questionnaire answers and test results, the program provides recommendations for action and a choice of five reports, two of which are designed for presenting to a professional eye doctor if needed. Many features of the system are configurable, allowing employers to tailor the program to suit their needs.

While the irony of using a computer to test for CVS is inescapable, it is, according to Anshel, nevertheless the optimal method for detecting the condition.

"Eye doctors are having difficulty measuring CVS problems," he said, referring to the differences between vision screenings done in a controlled clinical setting and those done in a computer user's own workspace. "If you go to the eye doctor, the results may not translate to what is happening in your office."

The beauty of the Eye-CEE System, he said, is that it provides direct information about how the eyes are performing under normal computer-screen viewing conditions--normal being the operative word.

According to Anshel, Eye-CEE screening can readily distinguish between who needs to see an eye doctor and who doesn't. Often, he said, test results will indicate workplace conditions and work habits are contributing to the perception of vision stress, in which case relief from CVS symptoms may be a matter of ergonomic intervention: adjusting an employee's computer station or equipment to improve posture or remove glare, for example.

Just Breathe
In one of the essays at the site, Anshel recommends three basic things you can do for yourself to reduce eyestrain while working at the computer. He calls them the "3 Bs" approach, the short version of which is: Blink deliberately, Breathe steadily, and Break regularly. For the latter, even if you just make a point of looking away from the screen occasionally, focusing your eyes on faraway objects, it will help.

If you're reading this online, now would be a good time for that.

This article originally appeared in the October 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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