NEW YORK CITY may be on its way to becoming just the second local government in the nation to regulate conditions for employees who work with computers. Legislation aiming to protect the health of city workers who sit at video display terminals (VDTs) is now under consideration by a city council committee, and is given a good chance of passage this fall. The bill is designed to protect workers from eye strain and nervous disorders health officials say may result from extensive use of the terminals.
First to require work breaks and special training for VDT operators was Suffolk County, on New York's Long Island, which this January adopted a law intended to protect workers in private industry and government. Other efforts to pass VDT legislation are also bubbling.
``There is activity on this all over the place,'' says Jordan Barab, health and safety coordinator for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. ``A number of cities and counties are working on similar legislation with strong union support.''
New York City's legislation is narrower than Suffolk's law, in that it would affect only workers in city agencies. Under the proposal, VDT operators would be given a 15-minute-rest break - or alternate work - after two hours of exposure.
Lee Marks, a spokesman for District Council 37, the union that represents virtually all affected city workers, says operators can experience focusing problems caused by looking too long at the screen. The proposed law would allow for glasses lenses designed for workers who typically look at a screen 18 inches from their faces.
Another risk, according to health officials, comes from regular pressure on specific body parts. Work performed at a VDT is unlike that of other clerical positions, they say. Unlike secretaries, who typically move around, VDT operators often sit in the same position for hours.
Under the legislation, anyone who requests transfer away from a VDT for medical reasons would be accommodated, Marks says. This is targeted chiefly at pregnant employees. The bill would also ensure special training, supplemental vision exams, and would dictate certain measures to ensure comfort levels. These would include chair support, wrist and foot rests, and glare-reduction screens.
New York City Mayor Edward Koch opposes the bill, according to Frances Milberg, deputy director of city personnel. ``We don't know whether the evidence is conclusive on the damage,'' she says. ``We have an elaborate health and safety mechanism in our city. That is a better way to address these particular problems.'' She says the union should seek any such changes through bargaining.
Marks says the union has tried that route. ``We have employees who need this kind of help,'' he says. ``We have a new kind of sweat shop. The only thing they've done is change the machine.''