We usually think of workplace injuries as one-time injuries – a broken limb caused by a slip and fall, a severed extremity caused by some equipment malfunction or a head injury caused by something falling from a height. While these are common workplace injuries that are immediately obvious, repetitive motion injuries can take months and years to become evident.
Repetitive Motion Injuries (RMIs) or Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSIs) are serious, debilitating conditions which can seriously hamper the quality of life of the sufferer if they stay undetected and untreated.
Most people are unaware of the common existence of such conditions, with the majority of people assuming that only those who use computers extensively are at risk of developing RSIs. This again is a misconception. Repetitive Strain Injury can result from ANY repetitive motion and workers from across all industries who do this type of work are at risk.
Bernardino Ramazzini, an Italian physician, was the first to identify and list more than 20 categories of workers at risk from work-based RSIs. Included in his list were musicians and clerks.
A Look At The Major Types Of RSIs
RSIs can be classified into 3 major types:
- Hand and Arm Pain
The bones of your hand and arm are connected by an intricate web of several ligaments, muscles and tendons. Your wrist alone has 27 small and medium sized bones with several movable joints and the number of tendons and muscles is much higher than that.
As it is, the tendons and muscles of the wrist are not very strong. When stressful movements are repeated again and again, these parts are damaged and unable to recover which causes discomfort, disorders and pain.
These injuries and disorders of the hand and arm can be broken down further into those of the nervous system, skeletal system and the neurovascular system.
- Disorders of the Nervous System:
These mostly occur due to prolonged and repeated exposure and contact of the nerves to various objects such work surfaces, sharp tools, or even adjacent ligaments, bones and tendons. Carpal tunnel syndrome figures top of the list of disorders of the nervous system. It is mainly caused when the same hand movements are made repeatedly, such as when typing or writing.
Symptoms may range from tingling of the fingers to pain and weakness in extremities. If allowed to progress, the pain may extend up the arm till the elbow as well.
- Skeletal Disorders:
When a tendon in the skeletal system is over-used, symptoms such as swelling, pain and weakness may manifest. If the tendon has been overloaded for a relatively short amount of time, it remains an acute injury with micro-tears in the tendons which can be treated by application of RICE (rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation). However, if the trauma continues and is repeated over time, this gives rise to tendonitis – a condition where the collagen fibres that make up the tendon are no longer aligned, resulting in loss of strength and further injury.
- Neurovascular Disorders:
These disorders are caused by the compression of blood vessels due to repeated activities- the most common among them being the Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.
This syndrome results in numbness of fingers, weakening of the pulse and sometimes can be detected if one arm is colder than the other due to lack of circulation. This condition is generally seen in professions that involve carrying heavy bags on the shoulders and also in activities that involve extensive overhead motions.
- Neck and Shoulder Pain
Neck and shoulder pain is commonly seen in clerical workers, who are often hunched up on their desks or holding a phone between their ear and shoulder. This problem is also common in professions where the elbow has to be kept at an elevated position, for example taxi drivers and people who work on computers for long durations. Continued exposure to such conditions causes a common condition called frozen shoulder.
Repeated outward motion of the hand can also cause a shoulder disorder called rotator cuff tendinitis which is mostly seen in painters, cleaners and bus drivers who drive buses which have manually operated doors.
The best prevention for neck and shoulder pain is mild exercise, mostly stretching, which relieves the tension that builds up in the muscles.
- Back Pain
Back pain normally results when the profession requires workers to maintain awkward positions for long durations.
Professionals at high risk for back pain include IT employees who employ poor posture while working on their work desks, assembly workers who repeatedly bend and twist to lift and place heavy items and nursing home staff or carers.
Handymen, construction workers, mechanics and other professionals whose work often involves lifting heavy equipment are also at high risk for back injuries.
The Employers’ Role In Reducing Repetitive Motion Injuries
Employers have a duty of care towards their workers. They play a vital role in preventing or reducing the incidence of repetitive motion injury by providing the proper infrastructure that is appropriate for their particular workplace.
Employers are also responsible for educating their workers by conducting workshops and suchlike to explain the importance of taking breaks and following proper techniques to reduce injuries.
Your Rights If You Suffer A Repetitive Motion Injury At Work
If you are suffering from any type of repetitive motion injury that is caused because your employer failed in their duty of care, you may be entitled to seek compensation for your injuries and the monetary loss stemming from these injuries.