IT HAPPENED TO Ola Bullock, a 44-year-old data reviewer at the Watts branch of the Social Security Administration. It happened to Silvia Perez, a 39-year-old service representative for Pacific Bell in Orange. It happened to a contracts administrator for a Los Angeles-area entertainment company, an airline reservations clerk from the San Fernando Valley, a discount stockbroker in San Francisco. It has crept up on secretaries, screenwriters, accounting clerks, broadcast graphics engineers. And it sneaked up on me--a 32-year-old reporter for the Los Angeles Times.
At first, each of us occasionally felt minor aches so subtle that we barely realized we hurt. Over time, we developed an invisible affliction that made the simplest hand movement a major effort filled with pain. It hurt to wash, to eat, to open doors, to pick up a baby. It meant losing independence, and it threatened our jobs. Bullock couldn't fill out her income tax forms. I could barely brush my teeth. "When I tried to apply pressure," Perez says, "it was like putting your hand on a nail. I mean it hurt ."
Researchers call it the industrial injury of the Information Age. Doctors call it cumulative trauma disorder or overuse syndrome or repetitive strain injury. I call it computeritis.
IN THE PAST decade, computers have become as common in the office as telephones. They do it all: researching, filing, calculating, editing, mailing. Along with efficiency and speed and ease, though, the high-tech revolution also has generated complaints of crippling side effects. Questions have been raised about problems such as blurred vision and an increased risk of miscarriage or birth defects. Most clearly linked to computer work, however, is damage to tendons, muscles and nerves, apparently caused by punching keys as often as 18,000 times an hour, for hours at a time.
Cumulative trauma disorder is not a new phenomenon, but until recently it appeared to be confined to manufacturing work. It has shown up in meatpacking plants, textile mills, auto assembly lines--anyplace where hand and arm motions are repeated continuously. Over the past 10 years, as automation has reduced jobs to simpler tasks and the race to increase productivity has cut into rest periods, these problems are affecting more and more workers.
Last October, the U.S. Labor Department levied a fine of $4.3 million, the largest in its 17-year history, against John Morrell & Co. for "willfully ignoring" cumulative trauma disorder that struck more than 40% of the 2,000 employees in a South Dakota meatpacking plant. In December, a $1.4 million fine was proposed for cumulative trauma disorder at a Pepperidge Farms Inc. cookie factory in Pennsylvania. Both companies are currently negotiating settlements with the Labor Department.
Some employers question the connection of cumulative trauma disorder to computer work. In workers' compensation cases, they have argued that the problems may result from aging or hobbies, such as knitting, sewing or playing musical instruments. And two social scientists from Carnegie Mellon University argued in the December issue of American Psychologist that the injuries are being used by some Australian clerical workers as an excuse to get disability pensions and escape their boring jobs.
But the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a research arm of the Department of Health and Human Services that advises the Labor Department, is convinced that repetitive strain injuries have a cause-and-effect relationship to computer work. "It's not unique to computers," says Vern Anderson, a NIOSH ergonomist (an expert in adapting workplaces for workers), "but we are seeing more cases of it because the proportion of the work force using computers is increasing."
Currently, 20 million people in the United States use computers daily to make a living, according to the Computer and Business Equipment Manufacturers Assn. By the year 2000, the association predicts, 75% of all jobs will involve computers.
Laurie Fraser studied cumulative trauma disorder as an ergonomist for the California health department. "It's valid to assume," she says, "that millions of Americans have computer-related (cumulative trauma) disorder now."
MY FIRST BOUT with computeritis began in late 1986. Very early one December morning, I opened my eyes to the predawn gray and wondered why I was awake. I moved slightly. Then all I saw was a haze brought on by sudden agony.
The next day, after I took a painkiller prescribed by a doctor, my neck was much better. While typing a story later, however, my hands went numb. My fingers tingled as if they were being pricked by pins and needles.