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We’re supposed to stand more and sit less. That’s good
advice for your health, but maybe not always when you’re
wearing a virtual reality (VR) headset, which present certain
workplace health and safety issues.
The most obvious hazard is getting too carried away and, e.g.,
crashing through your television set. But
there are other potential risks. Some are short-term such as
headaches, neck aches, nausea and eye discomfort. Others may be
longer term, including concerns about myopia brought on by the
disconnect between a screen inches from your eyes yet depicting
virtual objects miles away. Very, very smart people are working on that one.
Can the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
regulate these potential risks? Perhaps some more than others.
The principal risk is one we’re all aware of: disorientation
followed by a fall or a crash. OSHA can likely regulate this hazard
under the “general-duty clause,” a broad provision of law
that requires employers to maintain a workplace free of serious
recognized hazards. Where VR sets are used, employers need to make
sure that employees are secure in their space and can’t hurt
themselves or others.
When it comes to problems brought on by wearing the headset,
such as headaches, neck pain or back pain, that is arguably an
ergonomics issue and thus less susceptible to OSHA regulation. OSHA
attempted to require attention to ergonomics in the
workplace at the end of the Clinton Administration, but that effort
was reversed by Congress. Ever since, OSHA
has relied on the general-duty clause for ergonomic hazards.
Conceivably, VR headsets that fit poorly, are too heavy or are worn
too long could become a hazard under the general-duty clause, but
an official OSHA standard on the subject could be legally
How about other common complaints, like eye strain, headaches,
dizziness or nausea? The general-duty clause only covers hazards
likely to result in death (not applicable) or
“serious physical harm.” The kinds of complaints
described above may not meet that threshold, especially if
they’re not recurring or require medical treatment. However, if
the complaints continue, if they result in lost work time or if
they are indicators for more serious health problems caused or
exacerbated by too much VR time, then OSHA might be able to step in
under the general-duty clause.
Consider, too, VR headsets’ effects on employees’ eyes
and ears. OSHA doeshave a standard requiring employers to protect
employees from certain levels of noise exposure, regardless of resultant harm.
And there’s also the potential claim that VR time resulted in
damage to eyes or ears, though it may be difficult for OSHA –
or an employee in a civil suit – to prove that any consequent
diminishment in hearing or vision was brought on by extended use of
a VR headset, when the earphone market is growing 20 percent per year and the average American
adult stares at screens for at least 11 hours per day.
Finally, OSHA recordkeeping requirements might apply to VR
injuries and illnesses. Every employer must report workplace deaths and
certain extremely serious injuries and illnesses. This includes
injuries and illnesses that happen while working from home. Many low-risk industries are exempt from recording other injuries and
illnesses – though industries of every kind are embracing VR
and other metaverse technologies.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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