50% of all workers are at risk of developing a repetitive stress injury such as carpal tunnel syndrome or back pain. 1 in 10 will develop an injury severe enough that it interferes with work, home and leisure activities. Symptoms may include pain, numbness and tingling, weakness and clumsiness. At its worst, those who experience these injuries are unable to work, unable to pursue musical and artistic hobbies, unable to perform simple household tasks, even unable to hold and care for their babies.
In addition to the pain and disability experienced by the individual, the cost of these injuries can be tremendous. The carpal tunnel release is one of the most commonly performed surgical procedures in the United States. An individual case, including medical, therapeutic and work-related expenses, can cost up to $29,000. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the direct and indirect costs of all these types of injuries can total as much as $20 billion dollars a year.
If we or a loved one are not personally affected, why should we care? As a consumer, for every purchase we make, for every service we need, these costs are passed on to us. As an employer, these costs have a significant impact on our business expenses and practices.
Most of us have either experienced symptoms ourselves or know of someone who has hand pain or had surgery on the hand. We see people daily, on the streets, in our offices, at the grocery stores, wearing wrist braces or back supports. Yet few of us are able to say what causes these injuries or, more importantly, to plan strategies for prevention.
Repetitive injuries occur when daily microscopic damage exceeds the body’s daily ability to repair tissues. The damage accumulates gradually until eventually we have a deficit in healing and symptoms become evident. Demanding work activity or poor work practices (such as excessive or repetitive work, forceful movements, poor posture and awkward positioning) can all contribute to the development of injuries. Anything that slows the body’s ability to heal can also contribute: stress, poor health or illness, not taking care of your body.
The earlier that repetitive injuries are treated, the better the chance of recovery. However, the very best defense is to prevent the injury from occurring in the first place.
Ergonomics is the art and science of creating comfortable and user friendly work environments and work practices. Maintaining a work environment that is ergonomically sound and developing work practices that place the least amount of stress on the body are important to preventing injuries.
small and inexpensive changes can add up to big rewards. For example, take steps to reduce the noise around you and maintain a comfortable work temperature. Modify activities that require awkward positioning, forceful movements and repetition. Using a glare screen and a telephone head-set, changing the position of the mouse or the monitor, and varying your tasks performed throughout the day, can all significantly reduce body stressors.
For complete injury recovery and prevention, it is important to also look at general health and fitness practices and to perform an exercise program that targets the muscles most at risk for injury. Check out the other articles on this site that will help you make healthy changes in the way you perform your work tasks as well as the environment in which they are performed.