Hands on Management Style
19 September 1995
The initial panic over the first flood of RSI cases has subsided a little, and now is a good time for firms to assess the situation which exists in their offices.
Where does the responsible employer start?
They should perhaps begin by comparing the efficiency of their office with that which existed 15 years ago.
Considerable changes have taken place during this time. Output has increased, staff numbers have decreased in many firms and efficiency, presentation and communications have improved. Yet along with these advances, keyboard RSI, a strange and hitherto medically unrecognised condition, has appeared and affected some members of staff who are using new technology.
Keyboard RSI has no known pathology. It is not mentioned in medical literature. As a result it has come to be treated as a mystery disease, which a vociferous section of the medical profession chooses to discredit. The press on the other hand has heightened public awareness of the physical nature of the injuries caused by this condition, in part because many journalists have been afflicted by it.
This has left employers with a number of unanswered questions: is it a real problem? Is there a need for ergonomics in my firm? Do my staff need work pauses? Should I take action if people start complaining of pains in their arms and hands? If so, what is the best course?
These questions should be discussed seriously at management level if the numbers of injuries to keyboard operators are to be reduced.
The Health and Safety Executive has issued guidelines in its Six Pack leaflet, a copy of which should be in every firm by now, as the second phase of the EC directive on VDU workstations is due to come into operation at the end of December next year.
It is sound practice to have workstations assessed, and not to do so may incur serious problems in the future.
Ergonomics is a science but it is also based on the common sense premise of fitting the task to the person. It is reasonable to give an employee the best possible working conditions. And this does not necessarily mean the most expensive - sometimes a footstool may be all that is required.
A practical ergonomist will recognise this.
The issue of work pauses is a contentious one in some firms, yet it should be understood that when working with office technology, work breaks are essential if reasonable productivity is to be maintained.
Firms need training in the ideas of working rhythm and task variability and there should be some commitment to this throughout the firm.
When a keyboard worker starts to experience upper limb pains on a frequent basis they should always be taken seriously. Mild aches may develop into more disabling aches and if these are disregarded they may eventually become crippling.
It is acknowledged among experienced clinicians that more advanced cases are harder to treat clinically than those in the early stages. Managers and staff should understand this and the early reporting of symptoms should be encouraged.
When an employee reports a work-related injury to the Occupational Health Department (or its equivalent) it is essential that there should be a policy in existence which handles this in a sensible manner, as employees can easily be discouraged if the incident is mishandled.
Some of the people regarded as being most at risk are often the most efficient and highly valued secretaries, responsible members of staff who undertake a heavy workload and who will suffer in silence until they are forced to be off sick. This is a disaster for all concerned - for the injured person frustrated because they cannot do the job, for the employer forced to train temporary workers and for other staff who have the office routine disrupted.
Some members of the legal profession are beginning to address these questions in a responsible and serious manner. Lawyers know about personal injury - many are experts in the subject - and they are aware of the shortcomings of most offices; of the potential risks that many firms face and of the potential number of injuries waiting to happen.
As one solicitor said: "When you have got good staff, you should do everything you can to keep them."