RSI ruling puts strain on employers

A Court of Appeal judgment sounds warning bells for employers on the need to protect their workforce against the risk of repetitive strain injury (RSI).

The ruling will make it easier for workers suffering from the hardest form of RSI to diagnose to mount damages claims.

The appeal judges have backed a county court decision dating from May 1998, in the case of Alexander & ors v Midland Bank plc, in which Judge Byrt QC awarded damages of around £60,000 to five bank workers who developed RSI after working on bank encoding machines.

Some 90 of the machines were arranged in rows in a purpose-built building at Frimley, Surrey. This was one of nine district service centres set up by the bank to remove the work of recording cheque and voucher transactions involving debits and credits to customer accounts from local branches.

The five claimants, all women, launched a test case action against the bank.

They claimed that as a result of the speed they were expected to work, with insufficient breaks, and the pressure they were placed under to increase their speed, they suffered musculo-skeletal injury to their necks, arms and hands.

Each woman was awarded £7,000 general damages with further special damages on top.

The highest single total award was around £15,000.

But in addition to the damages pay-out, the bank was left facing a legal costs bill estimated to be in the region of £500,000 for the case, which was backed by banking union UNIFI.

Mike Watson, a senior personal injury litigation partner with Lawford & Co, which represented the claimants, says the warning to employers is clear. He says that at least another 10 cases have been waiting in the wings pending the outcome of the Court of Appeal case.

As far as employers who have staff carrying out intensive keyboarding duties are concerned, he says: "The message is the long-standing one involving the need to provide a safe place of work and make sure people are not required to keyboard at excessive rates and without sufficient breaks."

The claimants in this case, in addition to proving that their conditions were brought on by the work they were required to do, also succeeded in proving that they had not been allowed sufficient breaks to enable their arms to recover from the fatigue caused by the work.

Watson says: "The warning to employers is to look at the keyboarding speeds being required. Be careful about those speed requirements, do not put additional pressure on staff to increase the speeds and get faster and faster.

"And make sure they take sufficient breaks to allow their bodies to recover from the natural fatigue."

There are basically two types of RSI, says Watson. The first is a condition in which a specific clinical diagnosis is demonstrable, in cases such as tenosynovitis or tennis elbow. This form is relatively easy to prove by medical testing.

However, the other type, and this was what was involved in the Midland Bank case, is far more difficult to diagnose as it features symptoms which cannot be proved objectively.

The sufferer complains of pains in one arm, then the other, then possibly the neck, as the pain travels around the body.

Watson says: "It is mainly subjective, though there may be findings of tender spots and diminution of grip strength. Doctors cannot explain from a pathophysiological viewpoint how the pain has arisen.

"That's why this is such an interesting case. As far as I am aware, it's the first time a court has fully considered this form of RSI.

"The bank argued that the claimants were suffering from transient pain caused by fatigue, which anybody working on a keyboard would suffer from, but that it did not amount to an injury.

"The continued perception of pain and a disability was psychogenic.

"Our argument was that even though we could not explain how the pain was produced by the body, the pain was there and it was more than just transient pain caused by fatigue, it was injury. This was accepted by the judges.

"The approach adopted by the court is one which is going to make life easier for people who are suffering from this form of the disease to make successful claims.

"I am sure we shall get a lot more keyboard operators from other areas mounting claims now."