Hang ups

21st November 1997 at 00:00
Anyone who saw footage of Martin Bell being cut off in mid-sentence by a sniper's bullet in Bosnia will not need reminding that journalism is a dangerous profession. And it isn't only foreign correspondents who routinely risk life and limb to bring you the big stories. When those of us who write about computers kiss our loved ones farewell in the morning we never quite know what perils the day might bring.

Some of the hazards are too obvious to belabour: for example, the permanent threat of being bored rigid by a demented hype merchant, or worse still by a CD-Rom that fails dismally to live up to the extravagant claims made on the packaging.

Drivers who know how easy it is to fall asleep at the wheel during an uneventful journey will appreciate that waiting for a World Wide Web page to load can be dangerously soporific. Maybe it's not life-threatening, but none the less it's not pleasant to wake up from a troubled sleep with your head resting on the VDU and a rivulet of drivel partly obscuring that familiar message, "Netscape was unable to locate the server".

If that weren't bad enough, a hack who writes for a technology page has to face the terrors of a press launch. Sometimes with as little as a fortnight's notice, he or she (yes, technical journalism has its Kate Adies) will be summoned to some posh venue to see a state-of-the-art PC or new piece of software being put through its paces. This is always a white-knuckle ordeal. Without any back-up, you are expected to nod wisely, while at the same time holding your reporter's notebook, a glass of wine, a paper napkin, and a plate laden with a selection of savouries. They put on a brave face, but seasoned hacks know that the next bottle of Chardonnay could be corked; that the prawns in the finger buffet could be iffy. You can never relax when you realise that the next vol-au-vent could well have your name on it.

But if you are not in this business, I don't suppose you have any reason to worry about such things. It's only when we start grumbling about the stresses and strains of working at a keyboard that you should take us seriously. It isn't only writers who complain, but also secretaries, data inputters and others who spend a substantial part of the day at a PC. They all run the risk of succumbing to an occupational disease which could reach epidemic proportions. According to the TUC, doctors reported more than 100,000 new cases of repetitive strain injury (RSI) last year - a condition which already accounts for the loss of 5.5 million working days a year.

Children, too, are at risk. Danny, a nine-year-old with a passion for computer games, ended up finding it too painful to play football, climb trees or even tie his shoe laces. He was cured (older victims aren't always so lucky), but the treatment took months. "However, it only took one hour to teach him the fundamental knowledge and skills required to understand what was happening to his body when he used his computer and how to avoid, forever, a repetition of the extreme arm pain he had suffered," says Bunny Martin, a therapist who specialises in RSI. Her organisation, Body Action Campaign (BAC), plans to use all the tricks of theatre-in-education to teach classes of 11 to 14-year-olds how to avoid suffering the same fate as Danny.

I would have been able to tell you more if I'd accepted the invitation to attend BAC's press launch. We can't all be Martin Bell.

BAC, 21 Nutwell Street, London, SW1 9BR (Fax: 0181 682 2154) u arnoldevans@easynet.co.uk

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