Can Ergonomics Prevent Repetitive Strain Injuries?

Can Ergonomics Prevent Repetitive Strain Injuries?

Prevention programs are a hard-sell.  I believe that anyone who is in the business of providing injury-prevention information and services has experienced this.  Common-sense interventions that seems so pertinent to us will often be ignored or take low priority when it comes to actual implementation or practice.  Why is this and are there any solutions?

I was pondering this question the other day after working with a fifty-something year-old dentist who is experiencing pain through her arms, shoulders and neck.  Her pain level is at the point that she has had to change her scheduling routine because of pain.  She even needs to stop for brief periods of time during actual procedures because of pain and cramping.  For a busy practice that treats emergency dental cases, scheduling has become a nightmare and the dentist is concerned about her ability to work.  What is interesting is that she reports that she had lectures on ergonomics during dental school.  Now, she says, she wishes she had paid attention.  Then, as a young adult, she and her fellow students thought the discussion was funny or boring.  The information was not pertinent and did not make sense to them at the time.

Clayton Scott, an Assistant Professor in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department at the University of Michigan, maintains a webpage that is intended to educate anyone who uses a computer about RSI, and to provide useful suggestions for prevention and treatment.  He posts an interesting disclaimer at the top of his webpage.

“Warning: You will be tempted to ignore the advice on this page because you don't feel (or acknowledge) any symptoms at the moment. Resist this temptation!”

His explanation of the need for repetitive strain injury prevention is short and to the point – “When you first notice symptoms of RSI, you have already done substantial damage to yourself. RSI can take months, even years to develop, and you can expect it to take at least twice as long to heal.”

So what can be done to bridge the gap in time-frame between providing information in a timely manner and providing information when symptoms have occurred and it will be better received?

Here are a few of my thoughts.  Please respond with your own!
  1. Encourage early reporting of symptoms.  There are corporate fears that if employees have too much information on RSI, there may be false claims or an excessive number of claims made.  This may happen initially when programs begin, but by catching symptoms earlier, the cost per claim is lower and the initial surge in reported claims diminishes as injury prevention becomes the norm.  Injury prevention programs can become big money savers over time.
  2. Make ergonomics and injury-prevention programs a normal part of the work day.  We all brush our teeth at night because it is expected and we are taught this at an early age.  Ergonomic practices should be taught and experienced as a standard part of the business day.  Follow-through should be expected.
  3. Train teams to be aware of ergonomic risks and have them problem-solve with high risk employees on a regular basis.
  4. Put ergonomic tidbits into every communication and newsletter.  The “Spread the Word” section of the Harvard RSI Action website offers propaganda material that they encourage you to use (for non-commercial purposes) to spread the word about RSI prevention.
  5. Follow-through!  I have worked with employees who, once injured, receive ergonomic evaluations.  Weeks, and even months, have gone by before the employee receives the report or before any intervention is implemented.  Meanwhile, the employee continues to work in a situation that has caused injury.  This information should be immediately used and made (judiciously) public so that others can benefit.  The more that the ergonomist finds wrong, the better the report can be used as a learning tool.  The report is not an indication of failure but rather a place where injury-prevention program development can begin.

Marji Hajic is an Occupational Therapist and a Certified Hand Therapist practicing at the Hand Therapy & Occupational Fitness Center in Santa Barbara, California. For more information on hand and upper extremity injuries, prevention and recovery, visit Hand Health Resources.

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