IT-based strain injuries reach breaking point

Businesses that fail to provide employees with an ergonomically safe environment face stiff fines as governments beef up regulations to prevent strain-related injuries in the workplace.

Relief for Canadian sufferers of motion induced injuries might have been slow in previous years but, labour lawyers and workplace experts say, various provincial governments appear to be making up for lost time.

“Workplace ergonomics is still not directly regulated in Canada, but some policy changes concerning repetitive strain injuries (RSI) that could mean stiffer penalties are in the works,” said Jane Sleeth, senior consultant and principal of Optimal Performance Consultants Inc. a Toronto-based ergonomics firm.

In Ontario, more government inspectors were recently hired to crack down on workplaces that are RSI risks, and amendments to federal labour rules could means fines of up to $1 million for violators, Sleeth said.

The recommendations are expected to be written into law by the end of November this year, according to Jean-Pierre Blackburn, Minister of Labour and Minister of the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec.

RSI is a collective term for a variety of disorders that result from damaged muscles or nerves due to prolonged and repeated activity. These injuries, often affecting the back, elbows, wrists, shoulders, arms and knees, are sometimes referred to as musculoskeletal disorder (MSD), cumulative trauma disorder (CTD) or repetitive motion injury (RMI).

In 2003, Statistics Canada reported that one in 10 adults had a RSI serious enough to limit their activities. An estimated 2.3 million people in Canada aged 20 or older reported suffering from RSI.

More than 15.3 million work days were lost due to strain injuries in British Columbia between 1994 and 2005.

Government data also indicate that federal workers process an average 11,000 to 17,000 RSI claims each year amounting to $40 million in administrative costs annually.

Over the last seven years Human Resources and Social Development Canada has been working on amendments to the Canada Occupational Health and Safety Regulations that will develop a framework for ergonomics provisions.

“The recommendations include input from all stakeholders — employees and employers,” said Blackburn.

Employers will be required to set up a workplace committee that will assess and identify RSI risks. The business must develop and implement an RSI prevention program and address issues put forward by the committee.The ministry will provide companies a “reasonable period of time” to comply with recommendations of the committee.

The ammendments proposed by the ministry imposes a “legal duty” on employers to take reasonable measures to protect employees and public safety. The changes recommend that maximum penalty for offences include imprisonment of up to two years and a fine of $1 million.

Labour organizations and RSI sufferers’ support groups have long complained over the lack of legislation dealing with such injuries in the workplace and difficulties in processing claims.

“A high percentage of employers are trying to get out of paying for injuries sustained in the workplace by their employees,” according to Wendy Knelsen, a facilitator for the London Occupational Safety & Health Information Services (LOSH) and the London & District Injured Workers and Repetitive Strain Injury Support and Information Group.

She believes current regulations are stacked against compensation claimants because they require sufferers to go through a lengthy process of proving their eligibility.

“The process has drained me physically and financially and my case is still up in the air,” said Knelsen, who sustained strain injuries in her shoulder and neck due to prolonged typing on a laptop while working for the City of St. Thomas in Ontario in 2001.

Once a very active person who played baseball, golf and volleyball, Knelsen today “cannot even open a jar of jam” without feeling pain.

The situation is difficult for sufferers because of a general lack of RSI-specific protective legislation, according to Jeffrey E. Goodman, lawyer for Heenan Blaikie LLP in Toronto.

“What we have are guidelines for employers to ensure that the workplace is generally safe,” Goodman said.

Current laws, he said, deal with general safety concerns such as hazardous materials, slips and falls and equipment operation but do not specifically address the issue of RSI.

Monica Henriques, an ergonomics consultant for Ergo Risk Management Group in Calgary, said unless an incident has occurred or a complaint has been filed, it is up to the business owner to initiate a RSI risk assessment of the workplace.

She said a workplace assessment can be a business’ best protection against costly RSI claims or litigation. Repeated RSI claims also often results in increased insurance charges for a business as well as expensive plant or office retrofits to address the problem, Henriques said.

However, some SMBs have limited time and resources and “mistakenly associating RSI risk assessment with costly office retrofits.”

In reality, office environment changes often involve simple adjustment of desks and monitor height to prevent strain to the worker, she said.

A dead giveaway of RSI risk, Henriques said, is increase absence, sick leave requests or physio-therapy claims.

Typical one-hour sessions cost around $100 to $500 for workstation assessment and training for an individual worker to around $5,000 for two half-day sessions involving around 50 employees.

The sessions involve an evaluation of the workplace and office practices, identification or RSI risk and recommendation of work process, structural or appliance changes, according to Renee Frigault Kemp, senior consultant for Resource Environment Associates Ltd. an ergonomics consultancy firm in Toronto.

She suggests that businesses “act proactively.”

“Before you get your first complaint or before deploying equipment or constructing have an ergonomics assessment along with your safety assessment to avoid costly retrofits.”

She also suggests that company’s set up their own teams that will be on the lookout for RSI risk areas or situations.

Goodman of Heenan Blaikie agrees.

“By conducting and RSI assessment on your own, documenting needed improvements and changes made, a business is showing due diligence in protecting its employees,” he said.

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