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The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) had a novel idea for employers who were at a loss for a present on Secretary’s Day this past April. In a “Memo to the Boss,” the Labor Department agency suggested ditching the usual flowers and candy for the lasting gift of a healthy work space.
The reminder from OSHA may seem outdated at a time when most American workers are somewhat familiar with the idea of ergonomics and the painful realities of repetitive stress injuries (RSIs). But not so. The public health threat has settled it into offices and businesses at all levels. RSIs, which can include more than 100 types of job-induced injuries, are on the rise. Nearly 3 million people will file workers’ compensation claims for RSIs and back injuries this year to the tune of $20 billion in direct costs to employers. The crippling effects of carpal tunnel syndrome–an increasingly common office complaint–leads all other causes of lost work days, totaling one month.
For Luana Graves Sellars of New York, the fight to recover from carpal tunnel required a full year of complete rest, with almost no heavy lifting, including pots and pans. The former media buyer’s ordeal began with burning spasms of arm pain at night after spending nearly seven hours a day for five years at an office computer terminal.
“I would go to work and be fine typing all week and then go home and be miserable all weekend,” says Graves Sellars. She wore hand splints for six months and took medication while her insurance provider shuttled her to 10 doctors just to make a diagnosis.
Because of rigid standards set by her insurance company, she was never approved for surgery, but instead was forced to endure months of physical therapy where her sore wrists were pulled and prodded with an electrical current to stimulate the muscles. To add insult to injury, her company finally told her that the only replacement job they could give her would be as a receptionist. That prompted Graves Sellers to join one of the ongoing class action lawsuits against major computer keyboard manufacturers. The suit is pending.
Graves Sellars’ case is extreme but not rare as more individuals are spun around in the wickedly complex maze of national politics, insurance bureaucracy and corporate resistance. Many companies across industries have taken serious steps to balance the physical requirements of jobs with physical limitations of the human body. However, computer manufacturers are fighting claims that they are responsible for these disabilities. Currently, there are no uniform OSHA standards.
For now, OSHA campaigns for awareness through its 1993 meat packing industry guidelines, says Gary Orr, an ergonomist in the agency’s office of ergonomic support. “Position and adjustability are important. Take frequent breaks and move around on those breaks,” he says. Prevention is key because the damage is cumulative and may not show up until months or even years after you stop the activity. Carpal tunnel syndrome, which occurs when overworked, swollen tendons press on the nerves in the