February 28 has been recognized as the International Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) Awareness Day. Many unions, labour groups, and workers’ rights organizations in Ontario participate in this day to raise awareness of this type of injury, to educate workers, and to encourage employers and regulators to take preventative action.
What is an RSI?
RSIs, a type of musculoskeletal disorder (MSD), are injuries that result from overuse of certain body parts, usually the neck, back, chest, shoulders, arms, and hands. This type of injury affects the muscles, nerves, joints, and tendons. The overuse of these body parts often involves repetitive movements such as reaching, pushing or pulling, gripping, bending, twisting, or holding. Examples might include typing on a keyboard, working on an assembly line, lifting or repositioning a patient, and swiping items at a supermarket checkout or a library circulation desk. Workers in all sectors suffer from this type of injury.
Along with the repetitive overuse of certain body parts, there are several risk factors that can increase the likelihood of developing a RSI, including working in an awkward or static posture, working in a non-ergonomic workstation, using excessive force or vibrating equipment, working with insufficient breaks, working at a fast pace or in cold temperatures, and psychological stress.
RSI symptoms can include pain, tenderness, weakness, joint stiffness, muscle tightness, inflammation and swelling, and numbness of the affected area. Symptoms often develop over time and may gradually limit a worker’s ability to perform their usual activities and work duties. Symptoms may also progress into chronic disorders. Some common examples of RSIs include carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, rotator cuff syndrome, and tennis elbow.
RSIs at the WSIB
Each year, more than 2.3 million Canadians are seriously impacted by RSIs or musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and more than 30% of all lost-time injuries allowed by Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) are RSIs or MSDs. In fact, they are the number one type of lost-time work injury reported to the WSIB.
However, it can be difficult to prove that an RSI was caused by the injured worker’s workplace duties, which is required to receive benefits from the WSIB. First, RSIs can be difficult to diagnose as they are often complex, and the cause may not be obvious. Such injuries often go unrecognized or unreported.
Second, the WISB requires that injured workers provide sufficient evidence that the repetitive nature of their work duties is what caused their injury or condition. The injury must have arisen out of the worker’s employment. This can be challenging to prove if the worker has a pre-existing condition to a similar body part or with similar symptomology, as the WSIB will look first to non-work-related causes of ongoing injury.
And third, RSI claims can be increasingly difficult to prove as workers age. The WSIB has been hesitant to award benefits where a worker experiences what it assesses as natural signs of aging or is diagnosed with a degenerative condition, such as a herniated disc, which the WSIB assesses the worker may have developed anyway, irrespective of their work. This limits the ability of older workers to receive benefits as a result of their RSI, especially as the majority of people over 40 years of age will show some signs of degeneration.
What can you do?
As a preventative measure, you can speak with your union representative or supervisor to ensure that your workstation is ergonomic.
If you believe that you may be suffering from symptoms of an RSI or MSD, you should report the symptoms and hazards to your supervisor and Joint Health and Safety Committee members, your health and safety representative, or a union representative if you work in a unionized workplace. Do this early.
You will need to seek medical treatment from a healthcare practitioner to file a WSIB claim. Ultimately your medical assessors are in the best position to assess whether your condition arises out of your work.
Additional information on RSI Awareness Day