|Women Encounter Technology: Changing Patterns of Employment in the Third World (UNU, 1995, 356 pages)|
|13. Gender perspectives on health and safety in information processing|
To my knowledge there are relatively few studies on which to base any reliable picture of the incidence or prevalence of RSI or other computer-related health risks in developing countries. Many writers make the probably correct assumption that computer operators are vulnerable to the same kind of health risks which have been documented in the advanced countries. Barnes reported that:
While data entry firms in the UK, Canada and the US are being forced into an awareness of [these] risks by women's organizations, unions and the female workers themselves, the industry in Jamaica still has to catch up. No special attention is paid to the type of seating used, the frequency with which operators are able to get up and walk about, lighting, or anything else.
My own study of offshore data entry work in Jamaica confirms the view that there is very little public discussion of health and safety aspects of keyboarding within the sector (R. Pearson, 1993). But, as I argued at the beginning of this paper, given the attention paid to RSI and other health and safety issues in advanced countries, it is surprising that this has not arisen as an issue for wider public discussion. Although there is virtually no literature on the working conditions and health outcomes of offshore contract data entry or data processing workers in LDCs, it is interesting to note that an American company operating in the Philippines boasted to potential customers that 10 per cent of its 800 non-union employees 'are deaf mutes (for the best accuracy)' (N. Cohen, 1992). It may be that the inability to complain about health and safety aspects is as prized as the implied conscientiousness of these handicapped employees.
Ng, whose research is concerned with the introduction of computers into the domestic telecommunications industry, asserts that 'the effects (of information technology) on the health and safety of its users is a major and less controversial issue' (Ng, 1991, emphasis added), but she reports no evidence on RSI or other musculo-skeletal problems of data entry or other workers, beyond the statement that 'complaints related to the eyes, hands and wrists, shoulders, neck and back, and general health problems, are commonly registered by these VDU users (ibid.: p. 45). Data about abnormal pregnancy outcomes is also difficult to assess since it is presented without any standard of comparison with a similar cohort of women in different occupational situations (ibid.: pp. 45-47).
There is one study (Soares, 1991) of data entry clerks in a public sector data processing centre in Brazil. This found evidence of problems in arms, upper back, and legs. A significant number of workers were certified as having tenosynovitis, with a larger number displaying the symptoms indicating this condition. Soares notes that the work of these keyboard operators is extremely controlled, with talking and mobility prohibited. Although chair heights were adjustable, the back rests were not. Although the screens were not adjustable, few workers reported problems with their vision, which the researcher suggested may be because they spend less than half of their time watching the screen. Soares also suggests that the high levels of stress, irritability and exhaustion are linked to the facts that women have to do domestic work at home rather than rest and recover from their work-related strains, that they routinely do overtime, and that they spend considerable time commuting to work.