New laws are critical if the personal and economic cost of repetitive strain injuries (RSI) in the workplace are to be lowered, advocates for people with RSI say.
On the first International RSI Awareness Day, advocates in British Columbia, Canada pressed government officials there to enact laws to protect workers from the "invisible disease."
"It's becoming an alarming issue," Karl Crevar of the Ontario Network of Injured Workers Group told a news conference Tuesday. "RSI injuries are very disabling. You cannot see them but you can feel them."
Statistics Canada figures suggest 2 million Canadians have RSI, an umbrella term for injuries to muscles, tendons or nerves -- sometimes permanent -- caused by overuse.
Ontario worker compensation figures show claims for injuries due to repetitive bodily motion, which typically affects the lower back, head, neck, shoulders and wrists, cost about $70 million over the past three years.
In 1999, the province approved 2,660 RSI-type claims.
"The most shameful part of it is that these injuries are preventable," said Catherine Fenech, Canadian chairwoman of International RSI Awareness Day. "We can't continue to cripple workers needlessly. We need some legislation."
At present, only British Columbia and Saskatchewan have RSI laws in place, while Ottawa is currently working on federal changes to the Canada Labour Code that will allow for ergonomics regulations.
Advocates point to British Columbia's rules -- in place since April 1998 -- as a model for what is needed.
They say legislation, such as that in British Columbia, must force employers to:
- Assess RSI risks to employees;
- Eliminate or minimize RSI risks by including breaks or changing work stations;
- Provide education and training in risk identification; and,
- Evaluate any changes to determine whether they have helped.
Critics say Ontario, as the country's industrial heartland, is in special need of legislation and enforcement, and they accuse the Conservative government of indifference to the problem.
However, Ontario's Labour Minister Chris Stockwell said current legislation is already adequate for dealing with RSI.
"This is no different from any other work-related injury," Stockwell said. "If there's repetitive strain in the workplace, employers are obligated to take whatever remedies they need to take."
Stockwell said that they inspect and force employers and give them orders to comply if they don't take necessary measures to reduce repetitive strain.
But even with legislation in place, workers need to understand the problem because early intervention is key to prevention, said Fenech.
"Work shouldn't hurt," she said. "Pain is not a normal part of work."
U.S. Labor Department figures suggest the cost of the U.S. economy of lost work time due to RSI is $9 billion a year.