Sandia LabNews

New tool helps prevent repetitive strain injury

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Working in an office may seem relatively safe, but an unseen hazard — repetitive strain injury (RSI) — can creep up on cubicle jockeys over the years, causing pain and even disability if left untreated.

Fortunately, RSI can be prevented and treated, and Sandia is rolling out two new software tools to help do just that. One, RSIGuard Stretch Edition, is designed to prompt workers to take stretch breaks after periods of prolonged, intense computer use. The other, Office Ergonomics Suite, will help

Sandia’s ergonomics experts systematically and more efficiently assess and track workers across the Labs, especially those whose jobs and work habits put them at high risk for RSI. Through an extensive survey, OES also analyzes posture, ergonomics, work habits, and job requirements, and provides training and assessment for workers to help them decrease their risk for RSI.

RSIs are a group of conditions, including carpal tunnel syndrome, resulting from overuse and affecting muscles, tendons, and nerves in the hands, arms, and back. RSIs can occur in office workers, assembly line workers, athletes — anyone repeating the same physical action, usually over a period of years.

RSIGuard is like having your own ergonomics specialist standing over your shoulder, monitoring your work habits, and encouraging you to take breaks. It was developed by a computer programmer who developed a repetitive strain injury and wanted to help other computer users remember to take regular breaks and stretch. While earlier, similar programs used the “egg-timer” approach — recommending breaks at regular intervals — RSIGuard is more sophisticated, measuring both the amount of time and the intensity with which someone uses a mouse and a keyboard. Every 37 minutes — less often if you take rests and work less intensely — RSIGuard recommends a break lasting a minute or more. It also reminds people (on the default setting) to take 15-second “microbreaks” every 10-15 minutes. Small screens pop up with messages like “Close your eyes and breathe” or “Are your shoulders and arms relaxed as you type?”

Users can customize the program so that it suggests and demonstrates stretches through brief videos that appear on the screen.

For those who anticipate they will resist taking recommended breaks, the software can be set up so it will actually lock the keyboard and prevent further work. Another feature is Autoclick, which eliminates the need to click the mouse, potentially a major source of strain.

RSIGuard is now available for free at (click on RSIGuard Installer under Job Aids). OES will be available for download in early November.

Due to a limited number of licenses available, Sandians are asked to only download RSIGuard if they think they will actually use it, says ergonomist Rebecca Salzbrenner (10322), who oversaw the contract with software company Remedy Interactive. To try it out first, she suggests going to to download a 45-day free trial.

Sandia purchased licenses for RSIGuard and OES because of Sandia/California’s success in using them and their ability to centralize the assessment and tracking of employees’ risk status, says Salzbrenner. The CSU Technology Development Team (4537) and Cyber Security (4312 and 8965) partnered with ES&H Center 10300 to develop a Labs-wide solution.

“An estimated 85 percent of repetitive motion injuries at Sandia are from computer usage,” Rebecca says, amounting to about 65 of Sandia’s 600 recordable injuries in calendar year 2005. DOE conservatively estimates the average cost of an ergonomics injury to be $7,500, amounting to $487,000 for 2005, she says.

At Sandia/California, office-related, recordable repetitive motion injuries (diagnosed by a physician) have declined since 2005 from four to zero while the number of workers at high risk and moderate risk for RSI has been reduced by about half, to slightly more than 100 and 50, respectively.

Ergonomist Judy Tejada (8517) believes the injury rate at Sandia/California would likely have been much higher had it not been for these two tools. She learned about RSIGuard several years ago at an ergonomics conference and thought it would be good for “those people I can’t get to take a break.” Judy, diagnosed with bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome in 1999, says people need to pay attention to the warning signs of RSI (see sidebar) and get help immediately.

“Once you feel the symptoms, the damage has already been done,” she says. “They don’t call it cumulative trauma or repetitive motion injury for nothing.”

OES was also helpful in reducing risk and injuries, Judy says. When installed on an individual’s computer, the software analyzes posture, ergonomics, work habits, and job requirements through a series of survey questions, and assesses that individual’s risk for RSI. Most employees make at least one ergonomic adjustment as a result of their initial assessment; these adjustments as well as computer users’ risk profiles are captured and made available to Sandia ergonomics specialists, who can then track their progress and follow up if needed.

“It [OES] helps identify those people who are at risk, rather than waiting for them to come to us and say ‘I’m having a problem here,’” says Judy. “It’s amazing how many people can change themselves from high risk to moderate or low risk simply by following the recommendations of the software,” she says.