Ergonomics eases pain of repetitive strain injury

In brief

  • A worksite ergonomics program was associated with a drop in frequent and severe pain among those with repetitive strain injuries. However, work disability among individuals increased.
  • Supervisor support played an important role in reducing pain.
  • A worker’s ability to make decisions was also significant in reducing work disability.

Published: January 2006

Why was this study done?

Repetitive strain injuries (RSI) involving the upper body are a significant problem in workplaces. Ergonomic programs can help reduce this problem, but research on their effectiveness has been weak. This project was done with a joint management-union committee at a large newspaper. Two key goals were to gauge the effect of an ergonomic program on reducing RSI, and to understand how program participation, RSI risk factors, and pain and disability were related.

How was the study done?

Researchers surveyed newspaper staff in 1996 and in 2001, yielding 1,007 and 813 responses respectively. In total, 433 employees answered both surveys. The surveys included questions about RSI risk factors (such as time spent keyboarding), workplace environment (such as ability to make decisions) and pain symptoms. In 1998, an ergonomic program was implemented. It included RSI training, workstation assessments and changes, and encouragement for early treatment. The 2001 survey added questions about this program.

What did the researchers find?

In 2001, 69 per cent of employees participated in RSI training and 56 per cent had workstation assessments. Among those with pain, 57 per cent had consulted a health practitioner, including the on-site physiotherapist. When both surveys were compared, there was a drop from 20 per cent to 16 per cent in those reporting moderate (or worse) pain at least once per month, or for longer than one week. Among staff in both surveys, reduced pain was associated with the supervisor’s awareness and concern about RSI. Participation in RSI training was related to the employee’s ability to make work-related decisions. This in turn was linked with reduced work disability in 2001.

What are some strengths and weaknesses of the study?

With the five-year follow-up, researchers could show the persistence of RSI over time, and could track the influence of workplace factors such as supervisor awareness and ability to make decisions. Although the study was large, one limitation was the lack of a comparison group.