Repetitive Strain Injuries: Mitigating Impacts and Promoting Awareness

Posted on March 1, 2011

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By Jeff Borsato

RSI is one of several terms used to describe a group of disorders usually caused by repetitive movements. RSI’s can affect   shoulders, wrists and hands or even larger muscle groups such as the neck and back. Common injuries related to repetitive strain include carpal tunnel syndrome (affecting the wrist and fingers); tendinitis (inflammation of a tendon); bursitis (often affecting the shoulder); and epicondylitis (also known as “tennis elbow” or “golfer’s elbow”).

Statistics Canada recently reported that over 80 percent of patients suffering from RSI’s attributed their injury to the workplace. The most common culprits cited were inadequate breaks between job tasks; long hours; excessive workload; monotonous work; workstation design due to lack of input into and knowledge of how workstations should be ergonomically designed to meet individual needs; unclear job roles; job insecurity or dissatisfaction; and poor workplace social support.

As the name entails, repetitive work is not the sole factor in the development of RSI’s. An employee who feels unable to seek out the resources for an accommodated workstation loses a critical feature of satisfying employment:  a sense of control over one’s surroundings. We typically spend the majority of our waking hours at work, making workstation ergonomics a critical feature in reducing the development of RSI’s and a host of other occupational injuries.

Workplaces by their very nature can be stressful, and can at times demand more than many of us are willing to give. Brief but intense periods of overwork can exacerbate existing ergonomic issues, leading to the onset of an RSI. Due to their gradual nature, RSI’s are often ignored by most sufferers, or over-the-counter remedies are sought just to “get through” a difficult week or quarter. Often times, RSI sufferers report the greatest difficulty performing repetitive tasks outside of work such as child and homecare, or difficulty sleeping due to constant pain and discomfort in the affected area. A vicious cycle of disablement can occur when the work-life balance is disrupted due to occupational injuries.

In 2003, Statistics Canada noted that people who reported workplace stress were generally more likely to report an RSI than were those who reported no work stress. This was especially true for women, as the results showed 18 percent who indicated that their work was “extremely stressful” reported an RSI, compared with 10 percent who considered their work “not at all” or “not very” stressful. The odds of reporting an RSI were higher among women who became highly stressed at work, compared with women who did not. Day to day stress in relation to developing an RSI proved to have a significant association for both sexes. People who experienced greater degrees of daily stress had higher odds of reporting an RSI than those who described their lives as not very stressful.Very often repetitive activity at work can be mitigated through a deliberate program of activity cessation, such as micro-breaks and self-paced activity. Attention to ergonomic issues is paramount to ensuring the success of a prevention-based strategy. Health and Safety professionals must ensure that the workplace environment is responsive to staff needs but also be proactive:  very often the term “ergonomics” or “RSI” is unknown to the very people who are most at-risk to developing these painful but preventable conditions.  Ergonomic assessments are a critical feature of any workplace occupational health program. The proper workstation alignment and choice in equipment is an investment in employee health. But workplace accommodation goes well beyond physical alignment of chairs, desks and workstation terminals, by engaging staff in the process of health and safety a process of empowerment takes hold.

A workplace with a well understood health and safety strategy sends a clear message to staff that they are valued, not just for the work they do but for being healthy and happy members of a team. By increasing workplace satisfaction, prospective employers increase the likelihood that potential RSI risks are mitigated by an active and informed staff. A solutions-based approach to proper ergonomic accommodation engages staff members to be aware of work-habits that expose them to RSI related risks and to initiate decisions regarding the right ergonomic equipment to facilitate suitable accommodation.

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