Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)

RSI did not result from the technological era, nor is it found only in people who work with computers and writers. RSI was first identified in the 1920s and since then has affected musicians, tradesmen, and office workers.

RSI, or Occupational Overuse Injury, as it is being termed now, is a very real problem. It can be averted if people are aware of symptoms, and use common sense to avoid aggravating certain factors.

In general, RSI covers many medical conditions, some of which are:

  • Peritendinitis – which is inflammation of the tendons in the forearm area.
  • Tenosynovitis – inflammation of the sheath which covers the tendons in the wrist.
  • Epicondylitis – although not common in keyboard operators, it is inflammation in the funnybone region.
  • The Carpal Tunnel Syndrome – this is a more complicated injury because it can occur in either its primary or secondary form.

In its primary form, the person is born with a tendency toward a small tunnel structure and as they get older, or increase their workload, extra pressure is put on the nerve.


An operation can be done to chisel away the membrane which surrounds the bone, thereby alleviating pressure on the nerve. The secondary form is more severe, as an excessive use of the tendons will cause the tunnel structure to swell.

The extent of the pain caused by RSI conditions varies according to the severity of the symptom. It can be:

  • Pain at work only when using certain equipment.
  • Pain at work but gone at night.
  • Pain during the night but gone the next morning.
  • Pain during the week but gone after having days off.
  • Continual pain.

If you recognize the pain whilst it is in the first two stages, steps can be taken and exercises done to un-stretch the taut muscles causing the pain.

If however you have ignored the pain and it reaches the next stages, immediate medical attention must be sought.

It is imperative the potential victim recognizes the early symptoms and acts responsibly towards the injury.

RSI is not all in the mind, it is a physical complaint and a very real pain for those who contract it.

Factors which aggravate the complaint are:

  • Rapid repetitive movements – prime candidates are data entry operators who work at speeds from 20,000 to 40,000 keystrokes per hour, and who use one hand more than another for entries.
  • Unchanging movement.
  • Forceful movement – the hanging of wrists over the terminal edge. This puts a strain on both tendons and ligaments.
  • Extremes of movement – long fingernails cause this because the operator used the pads of her fingers rather than the tips which allow for the full range of her finger movements.
  • Static overload – this occurs when the arm is made to hold the hand position with no support provided for long periods of time.
  • Unfit for a fair day’s work – an example would be when a person has returned from leave and is no longer physically conditioned for a full day’s work at keyboarding, therefore there should be a gradual return to high speed.
  • Low motivation – either work-related problems or tensions from home life.


Now that it is understood what RSI is and the aggravating factors, one can look toward the options available to alleviate the problem. The most important option is the information.

Employers and employees must be given correct information on RSI, the causes, and treatment.

Exercises can be done before starting work each day which allows muscles to tone up.

Such exercises are stretching which allows tendons and muscle fibers to release any knots which may have formed in the muscle area; and movement, which reduces tension.

Some useful exercises are:

  • Neck rolls – allow the neck to roll from side to side. Never push the head back.
  • Hold one hand out flat, and with the other hand on top, gently push down.
  • Clench hand into a fist then slowly release it.

Work adjustment is another option available to alleviate RSI, and it concerns people who have come back from leave. Instead of returning to the same workload as when you left, you should gradually work back up to it.

Work simplification is a further option that suggests that you adjust your office or workspace to suit your personal requirements.

Adjust the chair to your height, keep computer screens away from direct sunlight or glare, have the keyboard directly in front of you and telephones within easy reach.

Avoid the need to twist, turn, and stretch. Assistive devices can be purchased, such as wrist supports, adjustable chairs, and footrests, which help alleviate strain.


Alternative duty is an option whereby keyboarding time should be kept to a maximum of 50 minutes per hour with a 10-minute break. During this break use the time to do the photocopying, filing, or company telephone calls. By doing this you are changing muscle groups and allowing the keyboard muscles to rest.

Relaxation and counseling are the final options. By being part of today’s modern world, relaxation is vital for reducing the stress and strain created during the day. And by having the option to see a counsellor you can talk to someone trained to listen and give advice if needed.

As with any injury RSI can range from minimal to severe. In the case of severe symptoms there is the chance that the person may never be able to work again. Therefore, the legal aspects of RSI must be looked at.

An employer’s liability for RSI may exist under the Workers Compensation Act or at Common Law level. The main difference between the two is that under Workers Compensation the employee does not have to establish fault or negligence against the employer.

For Common Law, that is the fundamental requirement. To be entitled to Workers Compensation, the worker must show that his/her injury arose whilst in the course of his employment or under the employer’s instructions.

Under Common Law the employer has the responsibility to care for his employees’ safety. The employer takes responsibility for the procurement of suitable equipment and has it inspected as applicable.

The employers’ most important function is to establish and enforce a safe system of work. If an employee suffers RSI the employer is only liable if there has been a failure to take reasonable care for the safety of the employee.

This encompasses four issues that an employee must prove. They are:

  • Foreseeability – the employee must prove that it was foreseeable that the seating, table position, workload, equipment, etc., were such that they could lead to injury, specifically RSI.
  • Preventability – the employee must show that a reasonable alternative could have prevented injury, or reduced the risk of RSI.
  • Causation – an employee is required to establish the connection between RSI and the unsafe equipment, or work system, proving that RSI would not have occurred but for the unsafe situation.
  • Reasonableness – the employee must prove that the risk of RSI was reasonably foreseeable and the injury was caused by the failure of the employer to provide safe equipment or work systems. It is a question of whether or not the employer acted reasonably.

Once it is established that the injury is compensable under the Workers Compensation Act, the liability of the employer in dollar terms depends on the extent of the injury.


For the most severe case where it is proved that the employee is totally unfit for work, the person is entitled to receive a full weekly wage up to the prescribed amount under the Act.

In the event that the worker is only unfit for repetitive work but can perform other duties, albeit not as highly paid as the former duties, the person is entitled to receive the monetary difference for as long as they remain unfit.

Prevention is better than any cure and everyone owes it to themselves to look after their health. Therefore a balance must be made between health and doing your job efficiently.

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