How to avoid those painful situations

Imagine receiving pains so throbbing you have to give up your sports, your studies, your work and go on the sickness benefit.

Imagine receiving pains so throbbing you have to give up your sports, your studies, your work and go on the sickness benefit.

Imagine having to stop using your computer, suffering pain when you brush your teeth, hold a telephone receiver or use a knife and fork.

Imagine getting dizzy and sweaty, becoming very weak, and becoming sensitive to heat, strong light, loud noises and any excitement and stress.

Imagine sleeping poorly, becoming depressed, suffering "neuropathic" pain, having a constant knot in your stomach and irritable bowel syndrome.

Dr Kevin Taylor has suffered it all.

While studying for his PhD at Canterbury University, spending up to 15 hours a day working on his PC, he developed occupation overuse syndrome (OOS), often known as repetitive strain injury (RSI). The ailment took four years to recover from, including 18 months on a sickness benefit.

But Taylor is using his suffering to benefit others. He researched the illness and, with friend Dr Robert van Nobelen, developed software to help workers avoid similar symptoms. Their company, Workpace, has created a detailed website (www.workpace.com) outlining Taylor's illness, symptoms and recovery, along with related articles and reports about RSI/OOS.

Taylor says many students on his course suffered RSI and it is a very common problem. ACC, he says, estimates 80% of workplace claims are for computer-related injuries.

And while some businesspeople may scoff at RSI/OOS, for Taylor the pain and devastation to his life was real.

"A lot of people think it's about repetition. The biggest problem is not movement, but lack of movement," he says, especially if workers keep their hand tense on the mouse. People, he says, have to take breaks. It is not slacking off; far from it. Studies suggest if people work for two hours without a break, they make more mistakes and risk injury. Workers should take breaks of ten minutes every hour, and regular "micropauses" or short breaks of five to 15 seconds every three to six minutes. He admits telling people to take breaks is not easy, but says it actually increases productivity.

Occupational medicine specialist Dr Bill Turner, who has posted reports to www.workpace.com, says employers and employees have a shared responsibility for the problem. The employer owns the work environment and therefore has greatest control over task design and organisational changes. The employee is responsible for his/her personal health as well as fitness, strength and endurance to do the job.

Intervention works best, he says, when there is shared responsibility, self-management, hazard identification and control.

Turner says taking micropauses may reduce discomfort and pain by cutting muscle and nerve tension. Taking micropauses to prevent fatigue is more effective than resting to recover from it.

Staff must also maintain their fitness for work, he says and should consider the following:

  1. Stretch muscles and nerves at least four times a day.
  2. A warm up routine.
  3. Work the muscles aerobically (aerobics, swimming, brisk walking, jogging) for 30 minutes, three times a week.
  4. Increase strength and improve posture, perhaps by joining a gym.
  5. Try to become more relaxed, reduce anxiety and stress levels. This can include an exercise programme, learning abdominal breathing techniques, considering anger and/or stress management, counselling, curbing weight and getting fit.
  6. Establish a work break routine with your supervisor for micropauses and macropauses of five to 10 minutes per hour.
  7. Finally, avoid the FAT CATS (fat, caffeine, alcohol, tobacco and sugar), Turner says.

Even if some of the staff responsibilities seem burdensome, it is better than the illness, or what might follow. When a former colleague put in a claim for RSI, her employer made her redundant the next day, took the company car off her and escorted her from the premises. Her claim for unfair dismissal seemed to drag on forever.

By the time OSH visited her former workplace, it had undergone major improvements with new furniture. The manager blamed the victim, saying no-one else suffered and she had sat strangely on her chair. Expensive changes would also jeopardise the business.

Workers, fearing for their jobs, also blamed the victim and OSH only asked for a few minor changes. Fortunately, the victim eventually recovered and now has a much better job.

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