Preventing Repetitive Strain Injury on Industrial Work Sites
Did you know that cold weather puts workers at increased risk of suffering Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI)? While Australia has pretty mild winter’s compared to most, a failure to adjust behaviours and take appropriate measures makes us extra vulnerable to such winter hazards. With the coldest months upon us, it is important that safety officers and workers are extra vigilant when performing tasks commonly associated with RSI.
In this article, Logic Health Exercise Physiologist Eoghan McKenna discusses the common causes of RSI and control measures you can take to protect workers from injury this winter.
What is RSI?
Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) refers to injuries that result from placing repeated, prolonged, or excessive strain on a particular muscle group. In a broader sense, RSI has also become an umbrella term for a multitude of localised overuse injuries, including; carpal tunnel syndrome, hand/arm vibration syndrome, trigger finger, golfers elbow, and tennis elbow.
Causes of Repetitive Strain Injury?
There are many factors that can contribute to the initial damage, the most common of which are:
- Working in static or awkward (as opposed to neutral & relaxed) positions, for extended periods
- Performing repetitive tasks, too often, too quickly or for too long (repetitive tasks are defined as tasks that have a cycle of less than 30 seconds, or that require the same set of movements more than 50% of the time).
- Applying excessive force to lift, move, grip, use, or twist an object
- Operating vibrating tools, equipment, or machinery
When muscles contract they produce chemical byproducts like lactic acid, which are then carried away by the blood. Holding a static or awkward body position requires muscles to stay contracted for long periods, which reduces blood flow and causes lactic acid build up in the muscles. This irritates the muscles, causing pain and putting you at increased risk of injury.
Drop to the ground and give me 30! Notice how the more you do the more difficult it becomes? Repeating short, fast motions requires large amounts of energy in the form of glycogen. Using the same muscle group over and over depletes glycogen stores causing the muscles to fatigue. When tasks are continued despite this fatigue, they require greater effort. The forced action causes tiny tears in the fibrils (small muscle fibres) and if unrested, injuries can result.
Force is the amount of effort our bodies use to perform a task, such as lift a box, use a tool, or move an object. If the force used to perform a task requires excessive strain, injuries can result. Excessive force is commonly linked with:
- long reaches (working with outstretched arms or objects away from the body);
- lifting or handling heavy, awkward sized objects;
- awkward / incorrect hand grips; and
- exerting high amounts of force over a small area (resulting in red marks or indents in the skin).
Using a vibrating tool requires you to exert more force than usual to control the tool, putting strain on the set of muscles required to apply that force. Failure to take appropriate measures can result in injuries like Hand/ Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAV). Similarly drivers of vibrating heavy machinery must exert greater force to turn the steering wheel / operate the controls, and engage more muscles to counter the vibrations in the seat and floor and hold their bodies in an upright position. This type of strain can result in chronic lower back pain.
Why Cold Temperatures Make Matters Worse?
Cold muscles are less flexible and therefore much more susceptible to injury and strain from overuse. Low hand or body temperatures also reduce blood circulation, increasing the build up of toxic byproducts in the muscles which puts workers at greater risk.
Symptoms of Repetitive Strain Injury
Symptoms of RSI can include any of the following:
- Burning, aching or shooting pain
- Tremors, clumsiness
- Tingling, numbness in the hands and arms
- Fatigue or lack of strength
- Weakness in the hands or forearms
- loss of sensation in the fingers, or whiteness in the tips
- Difficulty with normal tasks opening doors, turning on taps
Preventing Repetitive Strain Injury in the Workplace:
RSI’s can be prevented or at least the risk minimised by following some simple guidelines:
- Having good posture
- Ensuring correct lifting technique
- Ensuring equipment is adequate and well fitted
- Having regular breaks when performing repetitive tasks;
- Working at a steady pace;
- Adjusting your position / breaking from an activity as soon as you begin to experience pain or strain;
- Regular change of positions where feasible, and if not, regular breaks when working in awkward positions
- Training in the safest way to complete the task
- Education on stretching and strengthening programs specific to the role
- Wearing appropriate anti-vibration gloves when operating handheld power tools
- Using the latest power tool technology and ensuring equipment is well maintained
- Using tools that are fit for purpose and using them in the way they were intended
- Wearing warm winter work gloves and clothing to protect from the cold having / backup gloves and clothing if they are likely to become wet
- Warming up prior to performing high risk activities when working in temperatures below 16 °C
Treating Repetitive Strain Injury
Treatment initially focuses on minimising further damage and reducing inflammation and will later focus on changing the contributing factors, such as improving biomechanics, technique, equipment and environmental factors. It is important to get help early because once established RSI can be difficult to treat.
Tune in next month to learn about one of the most prevalent RSI injuries, labourers elbow, more commonly known as tennis elbow.
Eoghan McKenna is an accredited Exercise Physiologist & Managing Director at Logic Health.