BlackBerry thumb, iPod finger, text neck: these repetitive strain injuries are no joke

Feb 25, 2015

Neck painDon't be misled by the flippant labels. Repetitive strain injuries from overusing handheld electronic devices are just the latest in a long list of equipment- and task-related injuries that can cause painful and sometimes permanent damage to our musculoskeletal system, undermining our well-being and productivity. What's new is how these hazards are creeping from our work lives into our personal lives.

"Repetitive strain injuries, also known as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), are a function of awkward and static or prolonged postures," says WSPS ergonomic specialist Sandra Patterson, "and it's not specific to smartphones, tablets or even keyboards. Any task we perform or posture we hold long enough can cause an MSD. What's exacerbating the problem these days is the lack of recovery time. Previously, we would have a bit of rest at the end of the day. Now some of us may be pushing our bodies to the limits every waking hour."

MSDs result from overuse of muscles and tendons, especially in our hands, wrists, forearms, elbows, shoulders, back or neck. For example: crouching over a computer keyboard all day, repeatedly transferring heavy, wet bed sheets from hotel washing machines to ironing machines, even lifting one deli item after another to a grocery store scale sitting at eye level.

Injuries resulting from activities like these are the number one reason for lost-time claims filed with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), resulting in huge direct and indirect costs for Ontario employers.

"It doesn't have to be this way," says Patterson. "Taking simple, low- or no-cost steps can help prevent these injuries." Here's what Patterson recommends.

4 injury prevention measures

  1. Learn about and look for risk factors, particularly excessive force and awkward postures. You can't take action if you don't recognize the problem.
  2. Look for design solutions. Involve the engineers so that you can incorporate ergonomic principles in the planning and design stage rather than during retrofits, which are much more costly and difficult.
  3. Build skills in your employees. Make sure your supervisors and workers are aware of any known hazards in their work, and that supervisors are "competent" as defined by the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Also, certify all members of your joint health and safety committee (JHSC) or, for workplaces with less than 20 and more than 6 regularly employed workers, your health and safety representative. Well-trained committee members and representatives are better at identifying hazards and making recommendations for improvement. They're also better at being health and safety leaders and increasing overall employee engagement.
  4. Involve employees. Participatory ergonomics is a proven approach because employees know their job the best. They can tell us where the problems are and make practical suggestions. Encourage your JHSC to build MSD hazards into their monthly inspections, or consider creating an in-house team to conduct ergonomic assessments of tasks and workstations.

How we can help

Check out these WSPS resources:

  • musculoskeletal injury prevention - WSPS offers training and consulting services on everything from assessing hazards to implementing a targetted or organization-wide MSD prevention program,
  • Certification Part Two - Ergonomic Hazards,
  • work, warm-up, stretch and flexibility program (free download).

Plus, attend these conference sessions and professional development courses at Partners in Prevention 2015 Health & Safety Conference & Trade Show, taking place April 29-30 in Mississauga:

  • Building High Engagement Training Programs to Improve MSD Hazard Identification & Control.
  • Conducting Office Ergonomics Assessments.
  • Ergonomics Change Teams.