It’s best to address the source of repetitive strain injuries.
Whether your team members work at a computer, at a machine or on an assembly line, the job likely involves performing the same task or movement repeatedly. That can lead to repetitive strain injury (RSI).
RSI is a general term used to describe a variety of painful injuries that affect tendons, tendon sheaths, muscles, nerves, joints and other soft tissues. They cause persistent or recurring pain mostly in the neck, shoulders, forearms, hands, wrists, elbows and lower limbs.
Symptoms vary but include joint stiffness, muscle tightness, redness and swelling of the affected area. Some workers may also experience sensations of “pins and needles,” numbness, skin colour changes and decreased sweating of the hands. Symptoms usually develop gradually with the injury progressing in stages ranging from mild to severe, eventually causing longer periods of pain. Eventually, without treatment, the symptoms can become constant and impede job performance or even light duties. At this stage the condition may be irreversible.
Not everyone goes through these stages in the same way, however the first indication of pain is a signal that muscles and tendons should rest and recover.
Gripping, holding, bending, twisting, clenching and reaching are not particularly harmful during regular daily activities. What makes them hazardous is the continuous repetition. Other work factors also contribute to injuries, such as awkward postures and fixed body positions, excessive force concentrated on small parts of the body such as the hand or wrist, and a fast pace of work with insufficient breaks or recovery time.
RSI’s are best eliminated at the source. Focus on eliminating repetitive work through job design, which may involve mechanizing certain tasks. In addition, jobs should be structured so workers rotate between various tasks where they do something completely different, using different muscles groups.
If it’s not practical to eliminate the repetitive aspect of a job, a well-designed workstation adjusted to fit the worker’s body size and shape will help. Workstations should be fully adjustable and allow standing, sitting, or sitting-standing positions.
Appropriate, carefully maintained tools and equipment reduce the force needed to complete tasks and prevent muscle strain. Providing equipment to help with tasks that require holding elements (vices and clamps for machining) saves a great deal of muscular effort in awkward positions.
Because RSIs develop slowly, workers should be trained to understand what causes these injuries, how best to prevent them, and how to recognize early signs and symptoms. Workers need to know how to adjust workstations to fit their tasks and individual needs. Employers should also encourage workers to take short, frequent rest breaks and to consciously control muscle tension throughout the shift.
Many RSI cases resolve themselves once the source of the problem is eliminated. If nothing is done to address the injury or remove its cause, the damage could become permanent.
Prevention and control measures are more likely to be effective if they have been established with the participation of both employers and employees.
The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) in Hamilton contributed this article. CCOHS provides information, training, education, management systems and solutions that support health and safety programs and the prevention of injury and illness in the workplace. Visit www.ccohs.ca.
This article originally appeared in the October-November 2018 print issue of AutoPLANT, an automotive industry supplement to PLANT Magazine.