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High computer use creates health risk for many employees

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A growing computer-related vision disorder may contribute more than many employers think to lost work time or decreased worker productivity, experts say.

Computer vision syndrome is a vision disorder related to excessive computer use. Experts recommend regular eye exams to diagnose common symptoms of CVS: dry eyes, headaches, blurred vision, eye strain and neck, shoulder or back pain, according to the St. Louis-based American Optometric Assn.

Several studies over the past 15 years have shown that a majority of employees who work with computers on a regular basis, three or more hours a day, suffer from CVS and don't know it. People most affected by CVS include computer data entry workers, programmers, telephone operators, graphic artists, architects, insurance underwriters, air traffic controllers, journalists, lawyers, bank tellers and secretaries, according to the AOA.

But few companies have recognized CVS as a health care problem that should be included as a benefit in their vision plan, said James Sheedy, an optometrist and dean of Pacific University College of Optometry in Forest Grove, Ore. Mr. Sheedy's research indicates more than 14% of people who use computers complain about eye strain to their optometrists.

Not only does it affect employee health, Mr. Sheedy says, but it also reduces productivity. On average, productivity drops by 9% and accuracy by 38% among employees with untreated CVS, according to a 2004 University of Alabama at Birmingham study.

Mr. Sheedy says CVS is "more common than carpal tunnel syndrome" with seven of 10 experiencing the symptoms of CVS, he said.

"It is not so much the employer or benefits manager who asks for vision benefits, it is the employee who either is over 40 and needs some type of corrective glasses or has computer vision syndrome, or has children who need to be examined," says Howard J. Braverman, an optometrist and president of the vision division of CompBenefits, an Atlanta-based vision and dental benefits company.

A 2003 survey by the AOA found that more than 33% of adults have CVS symptoms, 61% are concerned about vision problems caused by prolonged computer use and 64% believe it will worsen in the future.

Companies can suggest simple solutions to employees, including adjusting computer screens, taking frequent breaks, blinking more frequently to reduce dry eyes, using eye drops and even purchasing specially designed computer glasses, said Mr. Braverman, former AOA president from 2000-01.

Vision coverage is one of the fastest-growing health insurance benefits, said Mr. Braverman. But if a company doesn't offer a vision plan, or CVS coverage, employers sometimes offer reimbursement for any computer-related vision expenses, he said.

"Some companies will provide $200 so employees can purchase the special computer glasses," Mr. Braverman said. Computer glasses are multifocal glasses with a wide area for viewing the computer and an area for close viewing like looking at the keyboard.

Awareness

Still, some companies cover CVS as part of their vision benefits, says Melody Healy, director of commercial marketing for Vision Service Plan, a Rancho, Calif.-based vision benefits company. "Typically we are raising awareness in the employer groups we cover that have lots of computer users," Ms. Healy said. "Employers who have ergonomics plans in place are more likely to look at related vision problems."

Despite years of research on CVS, most employers are more concerned about expensive medical conditions that have an immediate, direct cost, such as diabetes or congestive heart failure, Ms. Healy said. "There isn't a lot of awareness of this issue publicly," she said. "Employers have so much on their plate. This is a secondary complaint."

Employers may be confused about the nature of worker medical complaints or loss of productivity, Ms. Healy said. "It does not come out at first in your eyes," she said. "When people complain of neck and back pain, a lot of people don't make the connection that it is eye strain."

Not surprisingly, Vision Service Plan offers its 2,100 employees its own vision benefit plan that includes CVS coverage through the company's special Computer VisionCare plan. Overall, 7% of Vision Service Plan employees, or 147, use the CVS benefit for exams or computer glasses. Of Vision Service Plan's 202 clients who have added the CVS benefit to basic vision benefits, 6% of their employees use the benefit, according to the company.

"We do an ergonomic evaluation each year and ask them about eye strain. We tell them about the coverage and when they use it they feel a difference. Their eyes don't feel as tired during the day," said April Bettencourt, Vision Service Plan's manager of benefits and payroll.

Ms. Bettencourt says the types of employees who benefit most from CVS coverage are the ones working at a call center. "It doesn't add a large expense to your plan and if you can avoid a workers comp claim or improve productivity it is a benefit," she said.

Benefits

Some companies are offering computer vision plans to employees as part of their vision benefit program.

"Medtronic developed a vision plan that covers the diagnosis of CVS as well as lenses prescribed for eye-related conditions that may result from working closely on computers," said Roger Chizek, benefits director at Minneapolis-based Medtronic Inc., a medical device company.

New York-based Verizon Communications Inc. offers a comprehensive vision benefit program that includes CVS coverage, according to the company's spokesman.

"Our workplace is designed for optimal work, with lighting designed to reduce glare. If employees have CVS problems that would be covered and accommodated," he said. "We give 15-minute breaks often during the day for computer relief. They are designed to rest your eyes."