Responding is Ron Goodman, RSIGuard project director, Remedy Interactive Inc., Sausalito, CA.
Answer: For computer users, the term “repetitive strain injury” is often associated with both the type of injury (computer-related upper-extremity injuries) and the mechanism that caused the injury (e.g., repetition). Yet, despite oppressive costs related to insurance, lost productivity, presenteeism/absenteeism, employee turnover, etc., the causes of RSIs remain elusive. It’s not even clear if repetition is a particularly significant factor.
With such a large problem, employers should reasonably want to fund and track research into the causes of injury. Is it hours at the computer or an employee’s break-taking pattern? Is it the number of mouse clicks (i.e., repetition) or time spent using the mouse (duration of exposure)? Is it workstation configuration or body position? Or is it an employee’s stress level?
Employers also may want a clearer understanding of the indicators that an injury is on the horizon. These may include early reports of fatigue and discomfort from using the computer, but also may include more subtle metrics such as increasing error rates, degenerative typing patterns and negative psychosocial trends.
Researchers have been exploring how monitoring software can aid in determining the causes and signs of RSIs for years. Several small studies have shown that rest breaks can boost productivity and increase comfort levels. The Rapid Upper Limb Assessment method has been validated as being a useful tool for predicting risk of injury as well.
But some new research is shedding light on new findings. For example, Jack Dennerlein at the Harvard School of Public Health is exploring the idea that as a typist’s muscles fatigue, it may change how they type in detectable ways even before they realize they are tired. James Potvin at McMaster University also is exploring the idea that rest and work-duty cycles may have significant predictive value of injury risk.
Although the monitoring research has tended to involve small populations for short durations, a new trend is changing the research field. Organizations are taking advantage of the preventive and predictive abilities of software throughout their employee populations. In partnership with researchers, the anonymous data from this monitoring (and survey) software is being used to advance the science of preventing computer-related injury.
The practical issues facing researchers are conquered because the software has immediate business value to the organizations (preventing injury, boosting productivity and morale, showing the ROI of safety efforts, early detection of problematic risk trends, etc.), so they are motivated to use it. But the software also provides an opportunity for researchers to access more data about real-world populations.
For a long time, many organizations dealt with RSIs reactively. Now, with monitoring software, there’s really no good business justification for that model. The tools are less expensive than the problems they prevent and, morally, most organizations also are realizing that like any other type of injury risk, it’s unacceptable to ignore computer risks until after an injury has occurred.