WORKPLACE SCOURGE Stress ailments are a growing and costly plague


From data entry clerks to meat cutters, Maryland workers are being struck with the fast-growing category of occupational illness known as "repetitive stress injuries" or RSI. And employers are searching for measures to control the outbreak of the ailments, which cost billions of dollars to treat each year.

How bad is it? RSI, caused by movements that require repeated strain or motion, accounted for more than 44 percent of the occupational illnesses reported by Maryland's private employers in 1990, according to the latest figures available from the Division of Labor and Industry. In 1989, that figure was about 37 percent.

Of all occupational injuries reported nationwide in 1990, 185,000 were RSI-related, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That's 25 percent more than 10 years ago.

And RSI is costly. Aetna Life and Casualty, a Connecticut-based insurer, estimates that worker's compensation claims and other expenses from RSI cost employers more than $20 billion annually.

RSI ailments range from carpal tunnel syndrome to tennis and golfer's elbow to shoulder, back and hearing problems. And such injuries can happen to anyone: assembly line workers, store cashiers, data entry workers and carpenters.

People can get RSI from typing on a computer keyboard or cutting meat -- anything that requires repeated strain or motion. And any part of the body is at risk, from the wrist to the elbow, shoulders, back and ears. Severity ranges from soreness to permanent nerve or tendon damage.

RSI can dramatically change workers' lives, says Dr. Bruce Wolock, an orthopedic hand surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital who has performed "hundreds" of surgeries for such problems in the past five years.

One patient, a 30-year-old data entry operator in Baltimore, recently developed such severe tendinitis that he is often unable to work and fears being fired from a job he's held for 13 years. Anti-inflammatory medications have done little to ease the pain in the man's wrists, and surgery would be of no help, Dr. Wolock said.

Maryland employers report an increase in the number of RSI cases. At GEICO Corp., a Chevy Chase-based insurance and financial-services company, claims for such injuries increased noticeably beginning in 1990 and 1991.

Worker's compensation claims for RSI are now running at about 50 per month out of a nationwide work force of 7,400, says Don Knight, GEICO's vice president for human resources. Many of the claims come from computer terminal operators.

Problems with RSI also have become apparent at Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

RSI ailments can prove costly to employers.

"Carpal tunnel surgery costs about $8,000 per injury," said Theresa Barry-Greb, director of physical therapy at the Jefferson Medical Rehabilitation Centers in Lexington, Kentucky. "And it takes a long time for workers to recover."

To lower their costs and keep workers on the job, employers in Maryland and elsewhere are conducting seminars and workstation demonstrations during which employees are educated by experts. Workers are shown or told about techniques to prevent injuries -- such as the proper adjustment of their computers and chairs.

In addition, employees are outfitted with such equipment as padded wrist rests, which put the wrist in a more natural position and keep the tendons from having to work as hard in reaching upward.

Signs of repetitive stress disorder


* Numbness or soreness in the hands or shoulders when doing activities.

* Weakness in the hands. Sometimes sufferers cannot even grasp coins.

* Waking up in the middle of the night with pain. There is a tendency to flex muscles when sleeping.

Suggestions offered at Baltimore Gas & Electric for employees who use video display terminals.

* Adjust chair so feet rest firmly on the floor or on a footrest.

* Have everything you need within easy reach.

* Keep the distance between the screen and your body at 16 inches to 28 inches.

* Tilt screen to avoid reflections.

* Put top of screen at eye level.

* Keep screen clean.

* Adjust screen contrast and brightness to comfortable level.

* Adjust keyboard so it is comfortable to use.

* Changing your position periodically in the middle of the day is a sign that something is wrong.

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