From Socialist Review, No. 170, December 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Judge John Prosser’s description of workers suffering from Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) as people with ‘eggshell personalities’ whose crippling complaints had been brought on by their ‘lack of confidence’ at work, was the sort of judgement employers love to hear because of its enormous implications for thousands of workers.
Prosser’s cynical comments were part of his recent High Court ruling in the case of journalist Rafiq Mughal, who was claiming damages for pain and loss of earnings against his former employers, news agency Reuters. Mughal’s hands were so swollen that it looked as if they had been ‘pumped up with air’ and he was constantly in pain. He claimed that his condition was a result of his work on a keyboard from 1987–9 and that his company had not provided advice on correct posture when using a VDU and the necessity of regular screen breaks.
It was a bitter irony that while the case was taking place I was seeing a doctor who is considered to be the specialist in RSI or ‘work related upper limb disorders’ for a diagnosis of my own complaint. He also happened to be the expert medical witness for Mughal and his response to the comments was that he was as dismayed as I was.
While Mughal’s case wasn’t really a test case in the sense that it would set a legal precedent, what was disconcerting was the possible confidence it might give to an employing class that already proposes sweeping deregulation of current health and safety guidelines and laws.
RSI is a catch-all term that is used to describe a variety of upper limb complaints usually resulting from intensive hand use occupations. It is not limited to journalists but is a danger to many types of workers including musicians, hairdressers, keyboard users and assembly line workers. Nor is it new – the problem has been known for 150 years, but only recently have the consequences of failing to diagnose it early been understood.
The complaint causes intense pain and often loss of function in muscles, tendons, joints and ligaments resulting from excessive or incorrect use. The effects can be weakness, loss of control, speed and accuracy or the inability to move the fingers independently, as well as tingling or numbness in the fingers. At worst, it can cause a complete seizure, which may be temporary, but in serious cases it is hard for the injury to mend without total or long term rest, which in most cases means giving up your job.
It won’t just affect your job, either. I also have RSI and since my hands seized up I have had difficulty with various day to day tasks: inability to write constantly for any length of time, carrying shopping, turning taps, opening cans or twist tops, cleaning and even holding SW on paper sales. The National Union of Journalists has an RSI support group, where some people have even complained of an inability to perform particular sexual acts. The depression and distress that are part of RSI stem from constant pain, inability to work and worries about money – not lack of confidence or laziness.
According to government figures there are fewer than 500 cases of RSI in the United Kingdom in an average year. But the 1990 Labour Force Survey estimated that more than 75,000 people were suffering from an upper limb disorder. The latter figure is probably the more realistic, given the number of workers who have to perform repetitive tasks as part of their jobs. Employers such as British Telecom, Vauxhall, Lucas and Bernard Matthews have had to pay out compensation to workers who have won claims for repetitive strain injuries.
Contrary to what Prosser says, RSI is a medical condition which should be in medical books and on the prescribed list of industrial diseases and injuries.
Simone Kane is a freelance journalist.
Last updated: 1 March 2017