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RSI Cases in U.S. Decline

Workplace: Repetitive disorders dip for first time since 1982, government figures show.

March 13, 1997|STUART SILVERSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Providing encouraging news in the battle against a major workplace hazard, the federal government reported Wednesday that repeated-trauma disorders among U.S. workers have fallen for the first time in 13 years.

These disorders--also known by such names as repetitive stress injuries and cumulative-trauma disorders--had increased explosively for years to become the nation's fastest-spreading occupational ailment. They include such problems as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis and hearing loss stemming from repetitive motions, vibrations or pressures; the victims range from typists to meatpackers.

The new government figures, which cover 1995, show the number of repeated-trauma disorders among private-sector workers totaled 308,200, down 7% from 332,100 in 1994. That marked the first decline since 1982, when only 22,600 cases were reported to authorities by private employers.

By a broader measure, too, workplace safety is improving. The government reported that the overall rate of nonfatal injuries and illnesses in the workplace--including repeated-trauma disorders, back injuries, broken bones and other ailments--declined for the third straight year in 1995, hitting its lowest level since 1986.

The figures show 8.1% of all workers suffering such ailments in 1995, down from 8.4% the year before.

But the stunning turnabout in repeated-trauma disorders attracted the most attention. It reignited the politically charged debate between employer groups and worker advocates about the need for ergonomics regulations to curb repeated-trauma disorders.

California authorities next month are expected to approve a narrowly crafted ergonomics standard that, if it survives legal challenges, will be the first such regulation by any state in the country.

On the federal level, Clinton administration officials have urged ergonomics regulation as well, but so far have been thwarted by Republican- backed business supporters.

Both sides in the debate, however, were put in an awkward position by the latest statistics. Employer groups happily portrayed the report as evidence that there is no "epidemic" of repeated- trauma disorders and, consequently, no need for regulations combating them.

Still, employers have long argued against regulation by maintaining that there is too little scientific research available to know how repeated-trauma disorders are caused or effectively treated. As a result, they were at a loss to explain why the latest numbers fell.

The 7% decline in 1995 is "certainly no call for a rush to regulate--not when the benefit could be minuscule, given the state of our medical understanding, and the cost would be enormous," David Sarvadi, a spokesman for a business-based group called the National Coalition on Ergonomics, said in a statement.

"Some of the credit surely goes to the joint efforts of management and workers at companies around the nation working to improve safety on the job," Sarvadi said. "Since we don't know how much the workplace contributes to repetitive stress injuries, we honestly don't know how much credit we can take for their reduction."

But organized labor's Peg Seminario credited enforcement efforts by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, for alleviating the problem. She said major improvements came in industries such as meatpacking, auto manufacturing and poultry processing, which "are the sectors where OSHA has focused its efforts and attention in enforcement."

Seminario, director of the AFL-CIO Department of Occupational Safety and Health, said stepped-up enforcement, with the help of improved regulations, will reduce the ailments further.

Ergonomics regulation advocate Michael G. Gauf, editor of the monthly newsletter CTDNews, added that the new report "reinforces the point that ergonomics does work. It is not some voodoo science, as some in Congress and some U.S. businesses would have us believe."

Many employers, for instance, have provided computer operators with special keyboards and workstations to prevent painful arm and wrist injuries. In both white- and blue-collar settings, employers also report curbing repeated- trauma disorders by providing training, allowing for more rest periods and designing new work processes.

Overall, private-sector employers reported 6.6 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses for 1995. Manufacturing posted the worst rate, with 11.6 cases reported for every 100 workers.

Next came construction, at 10.6 cases per 100 workers.

In addition, nearly 3 million injuries and illnesses were reported nationally requiring workers to miss a day or more from work or limiting the duties they could perform.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Repeat Performance

Reports of repeated-trauma injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis fell in 1995 for the first time in 13 years. A look at the number of repeated-trauma disorders in the U.S. in private industry between 1982 and 1995, in thousands:

1995: 308.2

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

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