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IV. Workplace Injuries in the Dotcom Environment

Serial typists and renegade programmers face some of the most grueling workplace health risks in the new economy. Sitting blurry-eyed and slump-backed in front of a computer screen all day is no longer the cushy gig reserved for George Jetson or Homer Simpson. Eyestrain and repetitive-stress injuries (RSIs) inflict many keyboard users and mouse clickers, as well as factory workers and musicians.

Serial typists and renegade programmers face some of the most grueling workplace health risks in the new economy. Sitting blurry-eyed and slump-backed in front of a computer screen all day is no longer the cushy gig reserved for George Jetson or Homer Simpson. Eyestrain and repetitive-stress injuries (RSIs) inflict many keyboard users and mouse clickers, as well as factory workers and musicians.

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The soft tissue injuries called RSIs most often take the form of carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis. The most common causes of RSIs are poor posture, stress, and repetitive motion. Though RSIs aren’t life threatening, they can cause crippling disability and pain if not treated quickly.

Tiffany Lee Brown, a writer living in Portland, Oregon first contracted carpal tunnel syndrome in 1993 while working at the WELL, a California-based conferencing Web site. As a technical support assistant, Brown spent most of her day online and on the telephone assisting customers. During the completion of a major WELL upgrade and system overhaul, Brown began to notice some numbness and swelling in her wrists and hands, but she passed off the symptoms as the result of overwork.

“I was given a lot of responsibility and I was very excited about the opportunity, so I just ignored my health problems and kept working,” she says. “I know that project you’re working on is the most important thing in your life right now, but it’s worth it to stop for a moment and think about your future.”

Brown also urges workers bothered by carpal tunnel syndrome to file a workmen’s compensation claim before even visiting a doctor.

“Begin a paper trail immediately, just in case you need it later on,” says Brown, who now lives with a permanent disability.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a cumulative injury with symptoms including pain, numbness, and swelling that can result in reduced movement of the hands and wrists. Most people believe carpal tunnel results from repetitive hand actions such as typing or drilling, but other lifestyle factors contribute to the condition as well.

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Grant Owens is a certified hand therapist with the University of California at San Francisco Hand Therapy Clinic. Most of his patients suffer advanced RSIs that leave behind chronic injuries. In addition, Owens founded the forthcoming ergohealthy.com, a health-consulting Web site dedicated to the prevention and treatment of RSIs caused in the workplace.

“A combination of factors can lead to RSIs,” Owens says. “These factors include bad posture, poor range of motion, and lifestyle issues ranging from exercise to nutrition to overwork.

“People work 10 hours a day minimum, and 14-hour days aren’t all that uncommon. Workplaces provide coffee and sugary snacks around the clock, and many young dotcom workers feel invincible. But eventually, their systems will break down if they don’t devise measures for limiting the risks for injury.”

Owens advises his clients to avoid RSIs by taking frequent mini-breaks from the computer, improving their work posture, and establishing workstation environments that contribute to better posture.

Currently, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has no standards in place regarding muscularskeletal disorders (MSDs), such as RSIs. However, OSHA recently completed a “Ergonomics Proposal” that has spawned an ergonomics hearing in Atlanta on July 7, 2000, and a great deal of debate regarding workplace injury standards. According to the OSHA proposal, “Work-related MSDs currently account for one-third of all occupational injuries and illnesses reported to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) by employers every year…. Employers pay more than $15 – $20 billion in workers’ compensation costs for these disorders every year.” The problem is legitimate, expensive, and growing in size every year. Until the government establishes formal standards concerning these RSIs, it is in the best interest of every employee to research his or her rights, responsibilities, and preventative options.

“Computer users need to be physically active outside their work environments, and they need to think a little more about their eating habits,” Owens says. “Of course, cutting back on your workload would also be helpful, but that isn’t always realistic in dotcom companies.”

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