Repetitive Stress Injuries in the Workplace: An Overview for Employees
Find out if you're at risk for developing an injury caused by repetitive motions at the workplace.
Workplace injuries are often associated with a single, life-altering incident, such as an engine explosion that injures a mechanic, or a slip of a kitchen knife that severs a chef’s finger. But workplace injuries are not always the result of a sudden, isolated event. In fact, most workplace injuries develop over time from minor, repetitive movements that are performed on a frequent basis. Fortunately, employees can recover for these types of repetitive stress injuries (RSIs) through the workers’ compensation system.
For an RSI to develop, the individual action need not be difficult, physically challenging, or harmful by itself. But when that one motion is repeated several times in a day, and over the course of weeks, months, and years, the combined effect can take a serious toll on a worker’s health. An RSI can leave a worker in considerable pain and unable to perform routine job tasks and simple life functions, such as raising an arm or bending over.
There is no single, precise legal definition of the term repetitive stress injury (RSI). In fact, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the agency responsible for enforcing federal workplace safety laws, there are more than 100 different types of job-induced injuries and illnesses that result from wear and tear on the body. Not surprisingly, RSIs now make up the largest single category of workplace injuries, far more than slips and falls, cuts, or car accidents. In fact, if you are a worker in the United States, you have a one in eight chance of developing an RSI during your lifetime.
Who is at Risk for a Repetitive Stress Injury?
The increased frequency of job-related RSI injuries can be attributed, in large part, to the increased use of computers in the workplace over the past few decades. Businesses, large and small, now use computers for almost everything: communicating with customers, generating bills, preparing reports, conducting research, and performing inventory and data analysis.
The most common type of RSI involves injury to the hands and arms as a result of computer activities. If you spend your day repeating the same keyboarding motions over and over again, at high speeds with little rest, this can apply potentially damaging force to your muscles, joints, and tendons. Or, if you frequently use of a computer mouse or a touch screen, this can cause similar impacts on your body.
Some of the common conditions caused by this type of computer use are carpal tunnel syndrome (pinching of nerves caused by swelling of tissues in the wrist), bursitis (swelling of cushions between bones), and tendonitis (tears in tissue connecting muscles and bones).
However, it isn’t just computer workers who are at risk of developing an RSI. Many physical jobs, such as those in construction or manufacturing, frequently require repeated lifting, reaching, or use of heavy tools. But, the repeated activity doesn’t need to be strenuous to cause an RSI. Even a relatively light hand hammer, when used by a roofer on hundreds of nails each day, can overwork muscles over time and result in an RSI. For more information, see Nolo’s article Can I Make a Carpal Tunnel Injury Claim?
Supermarket cashiers and other retail clerks who work in front of conveyor belts are also at risk. These workers often scan hundreds (or thousands) of items per shift, which need to be quickly lifted, turned, and pulled so that bar codes can easily be scanned. Checkout counters are rarely adjusted to each worker’s height and other specifications, which can contribute to the problem. Even a hand-held scan gun requires workers to make repeated arm, wrist and shoulder movements that could turn into an RSI.
Other occupations with a high potential for RSIs include: assembly line workers, butchers (including meat packing), drivers (including delivery services and passenger transport), stocking shelves (wholesale or retail), musicians, and mechanics. These occupations require workers to sit or stand for prolonged periods, or perform repeated movements of fingers, hands, or arms.
Is There Any Way to Prevent RSIs from Occurring?
The good news is that there are simple steps that can minimize the risk to workers, especially when it comes to computer use. A specially designed and adjustable workstation is one of the most effective ways to decrease the risk of developing an RSI. If you spend a large portion of your day in front of a computer, you should ask your employer to adjust the height, angle, and position of your computer screen (to avoid strain on the neck) or provide a keyboard rest (to relieve strain on the hands, arms, and wrists). Even moving the mouse pad a few inches closer to your body can bring significant relief.
In addition to corrected workstations, you should adjust your work habits to include stretching exercises, taking appropriate breaks, and typing with a light touch. If possible, you should also vary the tasks you perform throughout the day, to reduce the impact of repetitive motions. Maintaining correct posture can also go a long way to preventing injury.
For workers who don’t work in an office, many of the same recommendations apply. For example, you should take adequate work breaks, perform stretching exercises, and vary your work tasks, if possible.
What to Do When You Suspect a Workplace RSI
It can be hard to detect an RSI in its developing stages. The worker may not notice any symptoms, and it may be too late by the time he or she thinks to take time off or seek medical treatment. Or it may be that a worker notices an increase in pain, a loss of strength, or an onset of numbness, but regards the symptoms as “just part of the job,” or chalks them up to aging. It may even be that the worker simply accepts and endures the discomfort, for fear of losing his or her job.
Whatever the case, it’s important for employees to pay attention to the warning signs of an RSI so that it can be caught early on. Warning signs can include a dull or achy pain in the limbs, tingling or numbness in the fingers or arms, weakness or a loss of coordination, or fatigue. If you experience any of these symptoms, take note of what time of day they usually happen and what activities you just performed. This can help your doctor determine what’s causing the injury and how best to minimize your pain.
If you suspect an RSI, you should notify your employer and make a timely workers’ compensation claim. Every state has its own time limit for doing so, based on the date of injury. Because an RSI involves a cumulative trauma that may have occurred over several months or years, it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact date of injury. To be on the safe side, you should file a claim as soon as possible. For more information on time limits for bringing a claim, see Nolo’s article Workers’ Compensation Time Limits.
Workers should make claims and seek medical care as soon as there is any measurable job-related pain, loss of motion, flexibility or strength, tingling or numbness, or similar bodily discomfort. After all, taking care of the condition while it is minor is far better than waiting until it causes a great deal of harm. And workers’ compensation laws prohibit employers from firing or disciplining employees for filing claims, so you can rest assured that you won’t be penalized for speaking up about your workplace injury (or if you are, you’ll have legal grounds for holding your employer responsible).