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Taking pains to alleviate repetitive strain injuries.

A quite rebellion is swelling in the ranks working people. Instead of thrusting clenched fists into the air to protest working conditions, these employees are nursing painful injuries to their wrists, necks, and shoulders while their lawyers are filing liability lawsuits and workers' compensation claims stemming from on-the-job repetitive strain.

It is estimated that 3,000 repetitive strain injury (RSI) cases are pending in courts across the nation, according to Steven Phillips, a New York City attorney who said he represents many of the plaintiffs. "We're on the verge of a barrage of trials," be said.

In a case that has already been resolved, a class of computer users tried to hold Houston-based Compaq Computer Corp. liable for RSI conditions, which the plaintiffs attributed to poorly designed keyboards. (Heard v. Compaq Computer Corp., No. 91-38733 (Tex., Harris County Dist. Ct. Feb. 16, 1994).) The jury found for Compaq, but in August the computer giant became the first corporation to voluntarily place warning labels on its keyboards. Other computer makers, including IBM and Apple, present ergonomic information in their user manuals.

Meanwhile, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is drafting a federal RSI risk-reducing standard that would affect offices, retail stores, construction sites, and factories. (See Edward Felsenthal, Guide on Repetitive-Stress Injuries Fails to Provide Specific Solutions, Wall St. J., July 19, 1994, at B6.)

The Americans with Disabilities Act may play an important role in RSI prevention, said Jamie Cohen, an assistant director of health and safety at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in Washington, D.C. The law however, has not been tested regarding this condition.

Some people see RSI as inconsequential; some deny its existence. But Phillips disputes this dismissal. There's very little doubt these cases of injuries are real. The basic deal is this. These companies knew, as sure as you're breathing, that their keyboards and equipment were going to hurt people, and they just deliberately accepted that. Between 1980 and 1990, they wanted to make sure they penetrated the workplace with trillions, not just billions, of dollars worth of equipment, and then they would deal with the injured people later."

RSI, also known as cumulative trauma disorder, usually is caused by swelling that results from muscle strain or overuse of tendous in the wrist, arm, neck, and shoulders, said Cathy Sarri, another assistant director of health and safety for SEIU. Carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis are forms of RSI. Surgery, which may alleviate these serious injuries, is generally considered a treatment of last resort, Sarri said.

Expert usually recommend rest and ergonomic changes in the workplace once the condition develops, Sarri said.

Prevention of RSI also focuses on the science of ergonomics, a term coined in 1949 that generally denotes the safe and effective interaction of people with the machines or objects they use. Sarri said RSI is caused by three major factors: the amount of repetition required, the force used to accomplish the repetitive task, and the person's physical position in relation to the machine or object being used.

According to government statistics and the experiences of worker's advocates and plaintiffs, lawyers, some jobs inherently carry more RSI risk. Those jobs occupy a large chunk of the 1990s work force: computer users. Other people vulnerable to these injuries include postal workers who use letter-sorting machines; supermarket clerks or other retail workers who use electronic price scanners; factory workers; meat packers; poultry handlers; and health care workers, especially nursing home attendants who manually move patients.

Some employers who supply the tools that allow workers to do their jobs say workers caused their own injuries, Sarri said. For instance, all employer might shift the blame by saying a worker misused the equipment or developed RSI doing backyard gardening at home. Many other employers are voluntarily, and sometimes ineffectively, implementing ergonomic safeguards at the office, Sarri said.

"The fact that the government has proposed a federal ergonomics standard signifies that it considers this to be a big problem," Sarri said.

Many rank-and-file workers who have received little protection under current OSHA rules consider it a big problem too. Last year, an Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC) administrative law judge threw out 175 alleged ergonomics-related violations filed by the Labor Department against Pepperidge Farm, Inc. (Department of Labor v. Pepperidge Farm, Inc., OSHRC No. 89-0265 (1993).)

The case awaits a hearing by the full commission, but the judge found that OSHA has no specific ergonomics standard to violate and that the department failed to show that feasible means" of abating the hazard existed. The government cited violations of the general duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which says employers must provide workers with a safe workplace.

A series of similar cases involving worker back injuries at a national chain of nursing homes is pending before another administrative law judge. (Secretary of Labor v. Beverly Enterprises, Inc., OSHRC, Nos. 91-3344, 92-0238, 92-0819, 92-1257, 93-0724.) The government charged Beverly Enterprises with violating federal workplace safety law by failing to protect workers at five Pennsylvania nursing homes. The citations focused primarily on exposing workers to risks associated with lifting and moving patients.

Carol Golubock, a Washington, D.C., attorney who represented the employees, said that this case also was built around the general duty clause but that if the proposed OSHA ergonomics standards were in effect, it would be all easier case to argue. Hearings before an OSHRC administrative law judge ended in July, and a decision is expected next year.

"The principles behind ergonomics are not rocket science," said the SEIU's Cohen. "If an employer has a workplace where [RSI] risk factors exist, there are solutions that will prevent some very serious, disabling injuries and reduce worker's compensation costs. Preventing [RSI] is all about making the job fit the worker, not the worker fit the job.

"It's clear to us that without direction and enforcement from the government business doesn't really know what to do."
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Author:Brienza, Julie
Date:Nov 1, 1994
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