Answering your questions about Repetitive Strain Injury

This year, RSI Awareness Day falls on February 28

Answering your questions about Repetitive Strain Injury
For more info on RSI, the CCOHS has a number of resources available online.

This year, Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) Awareness Day falls on Feb. 28 (it falls on Feb. 29 in a leap year).

In anticipation of RSI Awareness Day, COS spoke with Mathew MacLeod, an occupational health and safety specialist at the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) to learn more about RSI.

Read on to find out more about RSI, and what you can do to prevent them.

What is an RSI?

Repetitive strain injury, or RSI, is “a term used to describe a family of painful disorders affecting tendons, muscles, ligaments, nerves, blood vessels and joints,” says MacLeod.

He says that these injuries are more commonly referred to as work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSD), or just musculoskeletal disorders. Other terms include musculoskeletal injuries (MSI), cumulative trauma disorders, occupational overuse syndrome, etc.

The most important thing to know is that all of these terms refer to “the same group of injuries that result from cumulative exposure to hazards that causes strain on the body's tissues and structures. In addition to the repetition, awkward postures, overexertion, work pace, and other factors can contribute to these types of injuries,” says MacLeod.

Which part of the body is affected?

In essence, these injuries can affect many parts of the body, though they typically affect the shoulders, arms, hands, wrists, elbows, neck, as well as the back and legs.

“These injuries typically occur in the soft tissue, and so they can include muscle strains, tendon inflammation, as well as nerve impingement,” says MacLeod. “These injuries can be caused or aggravated by workplace activities and demands and can manifest as mild periodic symptoms to more serious chronic and debilitating injuries.”

Commonly-known medical conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow and even sciatica can stem from these injuries.

What causes RSI?

“There are many common activities that can lead to these types of injuries,” says MacLeod.

Activities such as manual material handling can lead to RSI due to repeated lifting, pushing and pulling, for example. Another common activity is working at a computer, which can lead to RSI due to inappropriate ergonomic set up of the workstation.

This last one is of particular concern due to COVID-19 as many workers are still working from home, often in sub-optimal set-ups.

Generally, repetitive motion injuries can be due to job design, awkward body motions, pace of the work, production pressures, lack of sufficient time to recover between activities and other work involving inadequate work organization and job design, says MacLeod.

Who can be affected by RSI?

In one word? Anyone.

“These types of injuries can affect workers in any industry,” says MacLeod, “including those who are involved in physically demanding jobs and those involved in office work.”

This is due to the multiple number of risk factors that can be present in the workplace, as well as outside of the workplace that can cause or aggravate these types of injuries, he says.

How to prevent (or minimize) the risk of RSI?

It is both up to the employer and the employee to work together to prevent such injuries.

“Employers, workers, and health and safety committees really need to work together to identify high-risk jobs or tasks and implement appropriate control measures to try to eliminate [or] reduce the risk of an injury,” says MacLeod.

For those companies which don’t have the internal expertise to perform risk assessments, outside OHS consultants can be utilized, he says. Employers need to be informed so they can really make sure that they are preventing these types of injuries.

“Employers should focus on avoiding repetitive patterns of work through job design changes…These changes can include eliminating certain types of tasks, and automation using technology and mechanical devices,” says MacLeod.

Fully eliminating hazards may not be possible (and is often not possible), so employers should be looking to minimize the risk of injuries through engineering and administrative controls – this included training. Workers and employers should be trained to understand what causes these injuries, how to best prevent them, and how to recognize early signs and symptoms, he says.

Joint stiffness, muscle tightness, redness, swelling, pins and needles sensation, numbness and skin color changes are all possible symptoms of injury. Lastly, should an employee have any concerns about risks, they should report to their supervisor or their health and safety committee.

“It's very important for workplaces to strive to identify and control risk factors as soon as possible,” says MacLeod. “Encouraging employees to report any concerns is extremely important.”

For more information on RSI, the CCOHS has a number of resources available on their website. Help spread awareness on Feb. 28 (and beyond) on social media using the #PreventRSI tag.