The number of workers suffering from a repetitive stress injury or disorder (RSD) is on the rise -- mostly because of the increased use of computers in the workplace.
RSDs (also called cumulative trauma disorders) now account for about 60% of all job-related injuries, and one in eight American workers has been diagnosed with an RSD at one time or another. If you own a small business, you probably know that workplace injuries fall under your workers' compensation insurance coverage, so its important to understand RSDs and how to prevent them.
Computer and keyboard use by office workers. The most common job-related RSDs involve injury to the upper extremities (wrists, elbows, and hands) due to repetitive keyboard activities. This is no surprise, considering the growing reliance on computers in the workplace. Office employees often spend hours at a time inputting or manipulating computer data, and if this is done without regard to proper ergonomics -- or for too many hours without sufficient breaks -- a nerve entrapment syndrome such as carpal tunnel syndrome may develop.
Bar code scanning by grocery checkers. Another occupation that has a higher-than-normal incidence of RSDs is that of the grocery checker. With the advent of scanners that read bar codes on grocery products, grocery checkers are required to pull or slide products across a scanner -- hundreds or even thousands of times a shift. This repetitive activity often leads to the development of cumulative trauma injury to the upper extremities. The repetitive turning of the neck from side to side may also cause a RSD to the neck or shoulders. In addition, constant lifting activities may cause injury to the back.
Fixed-position activities. Occupations that require workers to stay in a fixed position for a long stretch of time (called static posturing) can also lead to RSDs. Some examples of static posturing include prolonged sitting or standing, prolonged gripping or grasping, and holding a particular position for long periods. For example, an operator or front desk clerk who holds a telephone receiver between the head and shoulder or an airline mechanic who has to crawl and work in a twisted position may develop cumulative trauma disorders.
Other work-related activities that lend themselves to repetitive stress injuries include:
A familiar form of RSD is carpal tunnel syndrome, which causes swelling inside the tunnel thats created by bone and ligament in the wrist. This swelling can put pressure on nerves passing through the tunnel -- leading to pain, tingling, and numbness.
Other types of RSDs include:
Improper ergonomics is the primary cause of RSDs across many kinds of jobs. Ergonomics is the study of how people interact with their physical environment. It uses scientific knowledge about objects, systems, and environments (like work stations) to maximize productivity and minimize injuries. So ergonomics plays an important role in the cause and prevention of work-related cumulative trauma injuries.
As an employer, what can you do? Take steps to protect employees from carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive stress disorders. You may, for example, upgrade the equipment that employees use, train employees in improving work techniques, and modify the layout of work stations.
Train employees to avoid RSDs. The proper ergonomic model for the prevention of carpal tunnel syndrome (an RSD injury to the wrist) would include keeping the wrists in a neutral position (straight), elbows down by the sides, and the shoulders back, while sitting up straight. Employees can be shown how to follow this model and can be encouraged to reduce the frequency of repetitive activity where possible. Larger employers might consider hiring an ergonomics consultant to help them figure out what changes to make.
OSHA guidelines and enforcement. OSHA provides voluntary ergonomic guidelines for specific industries such as grocery stores, nursing homes, and poultry processing plants. In addition, the agency occasionally issues ergonomics-related citations. These citations are issued under general provisions of the OSHA law requiring employers to maintain safe workplaces.
There are no clear ways to alert a worker that theyre headed for an RSD. Often, by the time an employee realizes that something is wrong, damage has already been done. For this reason, mindful employers should encourage workers to pay attention to the following warning signs:
To combat the growing number of workplace RSDs, several states are considering regulations for businesses that use video display terminals -- better known as computer workstations. Rules adopted in New Mexico for state employees who use computers can serve as a model for your business:
For additional information on workers' compensation benefits, see Nolos article Workers' Compensation Basics for Employers. For more information about employee health and safety in general, including tips on preventing workplace injuries, see The Employer's Legal Handbook, by Fred Steingold (Nolo).