Repetitive stress injuries in healthcare workers

What are repetitive stress injuries?

Repetitive stress injury (also referred to as repetitive strain injury and described using the acronym RSI) refers to a wide range of conditions of the muscles, tendons, nerves and other soft tissues which have been caused by repetitive use of a certain part of the body. As nearly all jobs in the healthcare sector involve the carrying out of repetitive manual tasks on a daily basis, it will come as no surprise that RSIs are a common risk factor for nurses and careworkers.

Some of the more common RSIs include:

  • Bursitis – an inflammation of the fluid-filled sacs between bones, tendons, joints and muscles.
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome – compression of the median nerve through the carpal tunnel in the wrist area causing numbness and pain in the hand.
  • DeQuervain’s Tenosynovitis – the sheaths of the short thumb extensor and long thumb abductor become thickened, resulting in tenosynovitis at the base of the thumb.
  • Dupuytren’s contracture – connective tissue under the skin of the palm contract and toughen over time causing one or more of the fingers to bend into the palm of the hand.
  • Epicondylitis – strenuous overuse of the muscles and tendons where the bone and tendon join giving rise to conditions like tennis elbow and golfer’s elbow.
  • Ganglion – fluid-filled swellings forming on top of joints or tendons in the wrists, hands, and feet.
  • Rotator cuff syndrome – inflammation of tendons and muscles in the shoulder.
  • Tendinitis – inflammation of a tendon that has been subjected to a repetitive activity.
  • Tenosynovitis – the sheath around the tendon becomes inflamed.
  • Thoracic Outlet Syndrome – narrow passages in the neck become constricted, leading to compression of neural and vascular flow.
  • Trigger finger – a fingers or thumb catches in a bent position.

How will I know if I’m suffering from an RSI?

The signs and symptoms of RSIs vary widely, depending on which part of the body is affected and what the cause of the injury is. Often symptoms may initially only occur when the repetitive task which is the source of the problem is being done and will then dissipate slowly once the task has been completed. However, the typical experience is that if the task continues to be repeated the symptoms worsen and they remain long after the task has been finished and can eventually result in constant pain or discomfort.

Common signs and symptoms of RSIs include:

  • A throbbing sensation in the affected area.
  • Coldness in the hands or fingers.
  • Loss of sensation or strength in the hand.
  • Loss of fine-motor coordination (such as having difficulties doing up buttons).
  • Fatigue.
  • Pain and tenderness in the affected area.
  • Pins and needles.
  • Sleeping difficulties.

Am I entitled to be compensated if my injuries are due to repeating the same task over and over?

If your injuries are due to some task that you are obliged to carry out at work in order to discharge your duties as an employee and it was reasonably foreseeable that the repeated carrying out of this task over time would give rise to an RSI, then your employer will be obliged to compensate you for the pain, suffering, loss of wages, medical expenses and other expenses arising from your injury.

What are my employers duties ensure that RSIs don’t occur?

Your employer has a duty to continuously carry out health and safety risk assessments to identify what tasks are likely to give rise to RSIs and, once these are identified, to devise ways to ensure that these types of injuries are avoided, whether this is by means of ensuring appropriate rest periods, using different equipment, or devising alternative systems of work which remove the need for the actions that will cause an RSI if carried out repetitively.

If some activity in your job is the source of RSI, restrictions on that work activity may be necessary in order to ensure that more serious, irreversible damage does not occur. A comprehensive ergonomic worksite evaluation should be conducted in which your employer uses the services of a physical or occupational therapist to assist in identifying specific problems. However, if you have already sustained a severe form of RSI you may well be forced to change occupations as any further repetition of the offending activity could prove detrimental to your health.

How much time do I have to bring a claim relating to an RSI?

One of the features of RSIs that can be problematic for employees when seeking to recover compensation for their injuries is that there is no one event that happened on a specific date that can be ascribed to being the cause of the injury. Typically, symptoms will initially be very mild and will become progressively worse as the offending activity is repeated. This deterioration can occur over months or even years. By the time a healthcare employee has realised that they’re suffering from a serious injury that has been caused by their workplace activities it may be very difficult to say when exactly they first suffered from what could be considered to be a significant injury. This gives an employer to argue that, even though the RSI may have been caused by their failure in their duty of care to their employee, there do not have to pay a penny in compensation because the employee failed to commence their claim for compensation within two years of the date that they first became aware that they had suffered an injury at work.

For this reason it is extremely important that any healthcare professional who is suffering from a work-related RSI, no matter how mild or seemingly insignificant, seeks legal advice without delay to ensure that steps are taken prevent their entitlement to compensation being extinguished by failing to commence their claim within the time period allowed by the Statute of Limitations.