Activists repeat demands for ergonomic interventions
Repetitive strain injuries (RSIs) are a significant occupational health concern. According to a recent Statistics Canada survey, nearly 2.3 million Canadian adults suffer from these disabling injuries and the numbers continue to rise. The survey reported the majority of these injuries are caused by work-related activity. A direct link was also found between RSIs and stress.
For workers and their representatives this is not news. But what is new is a growing consensus on the need for dramatic interventions to stem suffering related to RSI pain and dysfunction. The 5th
Annual International RSI Awareness Day provided an important platform to explore these interventions.
RSI Awareness Day is the day set aside each year to focus attention on crippling disorders affecting more and more people in our workplaces and communities. Every February 29th
(the only non-repetitive day in the calendar, or February 28th
for non-leap years) events are held to educate the public on RSIs.
This year injured workers, union representatives, labour councils, health and safety professionals, and other health and safety advocates joined forces to focus public attention on RSIs and the need for legislation aimed at prevention, rehabilitation and compensation. Activities were held in Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, United States, and Canada where the Day originated.
India participated in its first RSI Day by hosting a weeklong traveling exhibition in Bangalore, the location of numerous international call centres and site of increasing RSIs.
Closer to home, activities were held in several communities including: Brampton/Mississauga, Cornwall, Guelph, Hamilton, Kingston, Oakville, St. Catharines, Sudbury, Timmins and Toronto. As in past years, the Workers Health and Safety Centre (WHSC) teamed up with Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW), labour councils and other community partners to lend support.
Another RSI Day “first” was the City of Toronto’s proclamation encouraging individuals to “increase their awareness and to promote understanding and acceptance for those who suffer with RSI.” Catherine Fenech, the injured worker who founded RSI Day, proudly read the proclamation before a gathering at Mel Lastman Square.
Two days before Fenech was at St. Catharines’ Brock University sharing her experiences on the treatment, rehabilitation and compensation of RSIs. Says Fenech, “Many workers have difficulty getting their RSIs recognized and compensated because it’s often hard to prove work-relatedness. Not all doctors recognize work-related RSIs or have the skills to address the problem.”
In Sudbury, two physicians that do know how to address RSIs, Sylvain Grenier and Raymond Jacques (from OHCOW’s Sudbury office) made presentations on the causes, diagnosis and recovery of back injuries.
Another presentation by OHCOW ergonomist Trevor Schell provided information on simple workplace interventions to help prevent back injuries caused by prolonged sitting.
For example, Shell demonstrated how a properly designed chair, with adjustable lumbar support and armrests, effectively supports the back and arms. Adjustable desks that allow elbows to rest level with the desktop help reduce strain. Contact stress is further reduced when desks have a rounded leading edge.
By changing posture occasionally, stretching and taking five minute breaks every hour, Schell says workers can also help reduce muscle tension and prevent injury.
Sponsored by OHCOW and WHSC, this forum was Sudbury’s biggest to-date attracting triple the participants of previous years. The event received extensive coverage on local radio, television and print media, which all helped to make it a great success.
Also well received, were the Workers Centre programs Musculoskeletal Injury Prevention Program (MIPP)
and Applying Ergonomics to Reduce Musculoskeletal Injuries
, which were offered in Cornwall, Hamilton, and Kingston. These training programs attracted participants from many sectors who shared varied work experiences.
In Oakville, occupational health nurse Michelle Tew encouraged workers to report their injuries. “Listen to your body. Pain is your friend. It tells you when something is wrong. If you notice pain or fatigue you need to act on it immediately and report these symptoms to your supervisor, worker representative and most importantly your doctor so that changes can be made to fix the problem.”
Oakville and District Labour Council vice president and WHSC-trained instructor, Don Swiston added, “The impact of an RSI can be devastating yet the solutions to prevent it can be so simple.” Swiston, a former maintenance worker at Petro Canada performed a lot of repetitive work using manual hand tools. “When people started getting hurt we switched from manual to electric screwdrivers to reduce the force required. It was a simple but effective solution.”
Participants at an information forum held at the University of Guelph heard yet another success story. Keith McMillan, national health and safety representative for Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP), presented a session detailing the experience of workers employed at the Toronto Star newspaper who achieved a dramatic decrease in RSIs after implementing various ergonomic interventions. Working with the union and Institute for Work and Health the employer agreed to set up a joint ergonomics committee to oversee implementation of an ergonomics program to address an alarming increase in RSIs.
The program encouraged workers to report all repetitive strain injuries. In addition, the employer allocated resources for training, redesign of the office layout and purchase of new ergonomically designed office equipment. The Workers Centre was also called upon to deliver extensive in-house ergonomics training to all workplace parties.
Before these workplace interventions, the Toronto Star averaged six RSI lost-time claims per year with a total loss of 343 workdays (1993-1997). After the interventions the company averaged less than two RSI lost-time claims per year with a loss of 82 workdays (1998-2002). In 2001 there were no lost-time injury claims at all.
Stories like this demonstrate that ergonomic interventions work. However, they don’t work without employer commitment. Says McMillan, “Not all employers are as cooperative as the Toronto Star. That is why we need an enforced ergonomic regulation in Ontario. Without workplace and regulatory interventions, along with education campaigns, workers will continue to develop these debilitating injuries.”
One need only look at British Columbia’s experience to see the validity of McMillan’s observation. Their Workers’ Compensation Board reports, since the BC ergonomic regulation was passed in 1998, musculoskeletal injuries have decreased by 19 per cent and associated claims costs have been reduced by 40 per cent.
Closely connected to the issue of RSI prevention are issues related to compensation and ccommodation of affected workers. To learn more see page 15 for the OFL, ODRT notice.