Lift, lower, repeat: RSI

Simon Bloxham

You see an employee in the office massaging their arm and when you ask if they’re OK they tell you they think they have RSI – just what are they talking about?

What is repetitive strain injury? (RSI)

RSI is a condition which affects the muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves and joints in the upper limbs such as the neck, shoulders, arms, wrists, hands and fingers. Various factors have the potential to cause RSIs, such as:

  • Repetitive work
  • Uncomfortable working postures
  • Having to use excessive force
  • Carrying out tasks for long periods without suitable rest breaks
  • Poor working environment and organisation.

What are the symptoms?

There is a wide range of symptoms, such as tenderness, aches and pain, stiffness, weakness, tingling, numbness, cramp, or swelling.

Assessing the risks of RSI in your workplace

There are two main approaches you can use to assess and identify if you have a problem in your workplace. You can look for any signs of problems or symptoms in the workforce. Or, you can observe work tasks to see if there are factors that could lead to RSIs.

Factors likely to cause RSIs include:

  • Repeating an action. This uses the same muscles over and over again. The more a task is repeated, the more potential for developing an RSI. Also consider the speed at which the job is carried out. Try to break up protracted work periods involving repetition with changes to activity instead of one break at lunchtime or mid-shift.
  • Using a lot of force and handling heavy objects. This may include using excessive force or having to overcome resistance. Handling or carrying heavy items may have an impact. Working with equipment and tools that vibrate can increase the risk of RSIs. To control this, provide some lifting aids and, if possible, reduce the weight of items, e.g. reduce the size of an item (for unpacking or loading tasks). Reduce the distance an item needs to be carried, or slide the item instead of lifting it.
  • Carrying out a task for an extended period of time. These include moving the arm to an extreme position, e.g. working above head height, working with a very bent elbow, or holding something in the same place for a period of time. To control this, design workplaces and equipment with the employee in mind. Consider providing platforms, adjustable chairs and footrests, as well as suitable tools. Arrange the position, height and layout of the workstation so it is appropriate for the work. Work linked to shift patterns and production with limited scope for job rotation may present problems. Share a high-risk task among a team by rotating people between tasks.
  • Poor working environment. Working in uncomfortable situations such as low or high temperatures, or handling hot or cold items, or working in dim light, in shadow or glare which causes a worker to adopt an awkward position to see better. Look at the conditions as it should be obvious what to do to correct matters.

And remember…

  • Changes do not necessarily need to be expensive. Simple and low cost changes can often be effective, such as job rotation.
  • Consider risks when setting up new workstations. It is cheaper than redesigning them or purchasing more suitable equipment at a later stage.
  • Tackle the serious risks or those that affect a large number of employees first.
  • Trial any new work practices before rolling them out across the workplace.

Dealing with RSI

It may not be possible to prevent all cases of RSIs, because employees respond differently to risks. Encourage employees to report any signs and symptoms to you, at an early stage, before they become too serious, so medical help can be sought by you or the individual.

People with RSIs can recover if the problem is recognised early and treated appropriately. The approach in most cases is for the affected person to rest their arm or hand to reduce inflammation. Physiotherapy may help. If you find that a task is causing or contributing to an RSI, you should stop employees doing that task.

If an employee has been off work suffering from an RSI, the timing of their return depends on medical advice. The employee’s GP and, if available, an occupational health specialist will determine the best way for the employee to return to work.

Getting the best from your SAIF-approved health and safety advisors. You can talk to a safety professional at Safety For Business by calling 08456 344 164. You are also entitled to a discount on our fees when we help you with your health and safety needs. We can visit you to see how you are doing when it comes to compliance. This is free of charge apart from travel costs.

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