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Thinking ergonomics.

It was 3:20 A.M. and something very strange was happening for the third night in a row. My arm was missing.

No, I realized, coming out of a fast-fading dream, it had fallen asleep. I tried to clench and unclench my fist--that is, the dead ball of flesh my fist had become. Gradually the sensation came back, and I slipped into dreamland again.

For a few weeks, I walked around with a creeping fear. Did I have some debilitating neurological disease? What was causing this deadness, night after night? But a friend said I was on the wrong track. "Oh," she said, after I told her about my night-time adventures, "that's a very common symptom of RSI."

Repetitive Strain Injury.

RSI is the premier occupational illness of our times, partly because so many of us spend the workday tapping on keyboards that were virtually designed to cause strain. You don't have to press a return key on a computer, as you did with typewriters. You don't have to stop to change paper. You can just type uninterrupted like a wild woman until your fingers go numb and your arms ache and you develop RSI.

Typing is only one cause of RSI. Any kind of repetitive motion can set it off. Repeated traumas accounted for 62 per cent of all occupational illnesses in the 1992 national survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

I spend as much time on a keyboard as the next person, maybe more. And, although I should have known better, I realized that my computer set-up was not ideal: My keyboard was too high, I never rested my back against the seat, I had to work at an angle. I'd always known things weren't exactly right, but I never expected this to happen as a consequence.

A neurologist, who tapped and pricked and bent my hands around, confirmed that my mysterious affliction was RSI. Pressure on the ulnar nerve, probably inflammation of the tendons in my arms, and the beginnings of that most famous of RSIs, carpal tunnel syndrome, were all exacerbated at night, when blood pooled in my arms, impinged on my nerves, and caused that weird numbness I knew so well. I had only my keyboard to blame.

Well! I heaved a sigh of relief. Thank God I don't have a terrible neurological disease. I bought wrist pads to support my hands as I clacked away on my computer. To get through the night, I began wearing an arm brace to bed to keep from flexing my wrists and putting more pressure on inflamed nerves and tissues.

But the night-time numbness continued. And one day, I woke up with a deep pain running up my arms. Riding to work on the subway, I was as eager as ever to indulge in the masochistic exercise of reading the daily paper, but I found gripping it was a big strain. At work, my keyboard was no longer my friend. Using it made my arms ache more.

After a few days, the obvious began to dawn on me. Maybe I did have a debilitating neurological disease after all: RSI.

I also began to realize that a keyboard is at the center of all my work. So dependent am I on a keyboard that I can barely think without my left index finger on the F key and my right on the J.

As I was contemplating my cloudy occupational future, half my acquaintances suddenly seemed to come down with RSI. Johanna started noticing a strange tingling and pain in her arms and was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome. We realized that her work station was not exactly ergonomic. (Ergonomics is the science of designing the workplace to suit the capacities and physical needs of the worker.) But Johanna had to angle sideways to type and raise her arms high onto a desktop.

And then there was Chris, who came down with a nasty case of tendonitis just weeks after he'd started a new job. He applied for workers' compensation to help cover his medical bills.

Even my good friend Eleanor, who doesn't type all that much, had the same scary numb-hands-in-the-night experience I had told her about. She'd done a heavy bout of typing the night before.

And it wasn't just keyboarders I was hearing about; in fact, the people most prone to RSI are production-line workers--meatpackers, bakery workers, garment workers.

My friends Chris and Johanna and I each sought medical help. Our HMO doctors were unhelpful and not too knowledgeable. We moved on to specialists, who seemed to provide uneven advice. Our sense was that the medical system as a whole really didn't know that much about RSI or how to treat it.

I located a great advocacy organization for RSI victims, the Office Technology Education Project in Boston. This nonprofit group organizes and trains clerical workers and other computer users on health and safety issues, especially RSIs. They gave me lots of advice and even follow-up calls from the "RSI police" to make sure I was dealing with my lousy ergonomic setup.

I learned that good ergonomics is critical. Every nuance of your posture can affect whether you contract this debilitating disease. If ever there was a job for OSHA, this is it. OSHA should be the RSI police. Well, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration hasn't yet gotten around to creating a standard for ergonomics. That's actually on the agenda for this year.

Needless to say, employers are freaked out. The National Association of Manufacturers told OSHA that an ergonomic standard would create a flood of lawsuits and cause workers' compensation claims to "rise uncontrollably." The business lobby argued that OSHA should try to narrow the definition of RSI to limit the onslaught of employee actions.

Creating ergonomic workplaces is an expensive proposition, but the human cost of unergonomic jobs is unbearable. The sad fact is that once you come down with an RSI, especially carpal tunnel syndrome, you may never fully recover.

My RSI has abated a bit. My hands still fall asleep at night. I've tried to ease up on my incessant typing. But sometimes, as I'm tapping away on this keyboard, I wonder whether this activity isn't destined for extinction. How long can we use our fingers to translate our thoughts into printed words? Surely some new technology--maybe voice-recognition computers--will make this habit of keyboarding seem old and quaint someday soon. But how will I think then?

Laura McClure is a free-lance writer in Brooklyn. Call the Office Technology Education Project at (617) 776-2777.
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Title Annotation:officeworker Repetitive Strain Injury
Author:McClure, Laura
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:Aug 1, 1994
Words:1095
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