b. Magnitude of the Repetitive Strain Injury Problem. In 1987, RSI replaced
skin disease as the leading cause of occupational illness in the nation, with nearly 73,00
cases reported. It is suspected, though, that many more cases go unreported, because
even those afflicted often fail to recognize RSI as a job-related illness. Symptoms such
as pain, numbness or tingling, are usually more severe at night hours after the suffering
worker has left the job. Office workers (who do not expect to be injured in the modern,
computerized workplace) often do not associate their pain with work. In addition, it may
take years to develop, and since there are few consistent patterns, it is often confused
with arthritis or simply the "wear-and-tear" of getting old. Repetitive strain injury is an
illness, not an injury. It is caused by constant exposure over time; it is a cumulative
condition, not a single traumatic injury.
c. History. Repetitive strain injury is not a new occupational hazard. Two
hundred years ago, Bernadino Ramazinni, an Italian physician, reported that serious
occupational diseases could develop from "irregular motions and unnatural postures of
the body." For years, craftsmen have experienced a variety of musculoskeletal
disorders associated with their trades, ailments with colloquial labels like "fruit packer's
hand," carpenter's elbow," "bricklayer's shoulder," and stitcher's wrist." In the early
l990s, telegraph operators reported cases of painful arms and "glass elbow," similar to
many of the data processing ailments reported today.
d. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. A September 1989 issue of the "Weekly Federal
Employees' News Digest" reported the following entry: "More and more federal and
postal employees, especially those who use computer terminals, handle heavy files,
and sort mail are suffering from `carpal tunnel syndrome,' an inflammation of the wrist,
according to union officials." For those working at computer terminals, carpal tunnel
syndrome, a form of RSI, is believed related to repetitive key-stroking. The carpal
tunnel is formed by the carpal bones and the transverse carpal ligament. When the
carpal tunnel swells, it squeezes the median nerve against the transverse carpal
ligament. This causes numbness, burning, and pain in the fingers and hands.
e. Medical Costs. Experts estimate that costs for carpal tunnel cases, in lost
time, turnover, medical expenses, legal and consulting fees, often range from ,000
to 0,000 per case. Some companies spurred by active unions and growing RSI-
related medical costs are beginning to question the way modern work is organized.
Some are instituting joint company-union programs to train workers, redesign tools, and
reevaluate workstations and tasks that pose repetitive strain injury risks.