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How Cyber and IT Warriors Fight Sensory Injuries

Image of Tacet Venari participants analyze metadata to identify any suspicious activity on the network during exercise Tacet Venari at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, May 12, 2022. The two-week cyber exercise provides Airmen the opportunity to identify, detect and respond to cyber threats. The exercise gives participants hands-on experience on how to recognize irregularities in the network. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jared Lovett). Tacet Venari participants analyze metadata to identify any suspicious activity on the network during exercise Tacet Venari at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, May 12, 2022. The two-week cyber exercise provides Airmen the opportunity to identify, detect and respond to cyber threats. The exercise gives participants hands-on experience on how to recognize irregularities in the network. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jared Lovett)

Service members and civilians in the Department of Defense’s cybersecurity and information technology fields can face unique challenges to their vision and hearing because of their workspaces.

Cyber and IT warriors commonly face a phenomenon called digital overload, which may show up as migraines and computer vision syndrome, also known as ocular fatigue or digital eyestrain. Computer vision syndrome is associated with eye irritation, redness, dryness, blurred vision, and double vision.

For example, at the U.S. Army’s 780th Military Intelligence Brigade (Cyber) at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, 80% of workspaces are typical "cube farms" with fluorescent overhead lights, according to U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Jesse Potter. Most desk spaces have a minimum of dual computer monitors, with the majority having three or four monitors.

The 780th’s mission is to “achieve U.S. supremacy in an increasingly contested cyberspace and electromagnetic domain.” Its mission requires staff to constantly track cyber threats and implement countermeasures to mitigate potentially damaging attacks in the digital space.

The other 20% of workspaces are the brigade’s operations centers, with little to no overhead light and only task-based lighting. The desks in these locations are set up in pairs with four monitors and are not generally as crowded as the rest of the office spaces, Potter said.

To counter potential vision and hearing injuries, the 780th operations center soldiers follow the “aviation model of crew rest, limiting their on-network activities to eight hours. Extending those hours requires command approval,” Potter said.

Vision Injuries in the Digital Age

Digital eyestrain may be caused by poor lighting, including lighting that is too bright, glare on a digital screen, improper viewing distances, poor seating posture, and uncorrected vision problems, according to Dr. Mariia Viswanathan, vision care readiness section chief at the Defense Health Agency’s Vision Center of Excellence.

“The extent to which individuals experience visual symptoms often depends on the level of their visual abilities and the amount of time spent looking at a digital screen,” Viswanathan said. “Uncorrected vision problems like farsightedness and astigmatism, inadequate eye focusing or eye coordination abilities, and aging changes of the eyes, such as nearsightedness, can all contribute to the development of visual symptoms when using a computer or digital screen device,” she explained.

Workers over 50 tend to require twice the light levels of young adults to perform the same task, she noted.

“Studies have also shown that personnel become more nearsighted over time as they adapt to their tasks,” said Dr. Michael Pattison, VCE program manager for readiness and operations optometry.

Vision Protection

To decrease eye injuries from electronic device work:

  • Control bright light sources with proper blinds, filters, or adjustment of the room arrangement.
  • Use screen filters to reduce glare and reflections off the computer screen.
  • Adjust screen brightness and contrast to provide balance with room lighting and maximum visibility.
  • Use the correct eye distance from the screen of about 35-40 inches.
  • Use the proper angle for the screen of 10-20 degrees below or having the middle of the screen being 5-6 inches below eye level.
  • Follow the 20/20/20 rule: take a 20-second break every 20 minutes and focus your vision on something 20 feet away.
  • Remember to blink to keep your eyes moist.
  • Use artificial tears, if needed.
  • Drink lots of water, especially during the winter months when heaters and furnaces can make the air particularly dry.
  • Schedule regular comprehensive eye exams. Be sure to tell your eye doctor if you use electronic devices as part of your daily work routine.
  • Use computer eyewear to help alleviate eye strain.
  • Work at the computer monitor no more than four hours straight.
  • Take short, frequent mini breaks by getting up, stretching, walking around, and giving your eyes a rest from focusing on your screen.

Many visual symptoms experienced by electronics users are temporary and will decline after stopping computer work. “However, some individuals may experience continued reduced visual abilities, such as blurred distance vision, even after stopping work at a computer. If nothing is done to address the cause of the problem, the symptoms will continue to recur and perhaps worsen with future digital screen use,” Viswanathan cautioned.

Given the heavy use of electronic devices across the military, DHA is looking at ways to change how it follows eye health concerns.

The VCE is sponsoring a one-year landmark eye health study to determine the value of requiring service members to receive a comprehensive baseline eye exam to fill gaps in information and improve warfighter vision health. Current vision evaluation involves checking distance vision only at recruitment physicals.

Blue Blockers and Yellow Lenses

At the 780th, soldiers can wear yellow lenses and blue blocker glasses to protect their vision, which are the brigade’s biggest purchase requests, Potter noted.

The potential long-term ocular and vision effects of blue lights is being studied as part of a larger VCE research effort called the Warfighter Vision Health Plan. The soon-to-be-released plan identifies, monitors, and works to lessen any potential threats to warfighter vision.

Current research is inconclusive, and more research does need to occur,” Pattison said. “VCE supports efforts to determine whether blue light, as well as any other potential threats to vision being reported, are accurate and whether the use of protective devices such as light-filtering eyewear that protects the eyes are effective.”

Hearing Injury Prevention

Normal conversation levels are the norm for the 780th’s cube farms, but in operations spaces, sounds are kept to a whisper to allow for focus and concentration, according to Potter.

But cyber and IT warriors can still experience hearing injuries. Data centers use fans, power supplies, and other noise-hazardous equipment that can be harmful to hearing.

Normal conversational loudness ranges from 60-70 decibels. “If you need to raise your voice to speak to someone three feet away, noise levels might be over 85 decibels,” Viswanathan said. The permitted exposure level for an eight-hour shift is 85 decibels for the DOD.

Ways to protect hearing include:

  • Avoid or limit exposure to loud sounds.
  • Move away from sources of loud sounds, when possible.
  • Use appropriate hearing protection devices such as earmuffs, headsets or earplugs.
  • Schedule a hearing evaluation by a licensed audiologist or other qualified professional, especially if there is concern about potential hearing loss.

Almost any hearing protector, when fitted correctly, can provide 10 decibels of sound reduction, but beware of reducing sound too much, Viswanathan said. “Just as too little light can make it just as difficult to see as too much light, too little sound can make you feel isolated and less aware of your surroundings. Aim for just enough noise reduction to bring your exposure down to 75-85 decibels.”

“The best thing personnel can do is get routine, periodic eye and hearing examinations,” said Pattison. “Discussions with eye and hearing care professionals can assist them in optimizing their performance and help them perform the necessary tasks for the required period of time.”

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Last Updated: December 01, 2023
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