Repetitive strain injuries rise to 'epidemic' levels: TUC aims to raises awareness of illness which affects keyboard users. Barrie Clement reports

Injuries caused by repetitive work are now of 'epidemic' proportions causing 200,000 people a year to take time off work, according to leading experts in ergonomics.

While ergonomists at Surrey University believe that the increasing numbers are caused partly by greater awareness of the illness, they also argue that the drive for greater productivity and a growing number of computer keyboards may also be factors. It is thought that about 4 million people now regularly use terminals and an increasing proportion are developing what is known as Repetitive Strain Injury as a consequence.

According to Department of Health figures, the number of workers suffering from tenosynovitis, which can be caused by a range of repetitive jobs, increased by nearly 60 per cent between 1988 and 1991.

Dr Peter Buckle, of the Robens Institute at Surrey University, said science had been aware of such problems for more than 200 years, but the authorities had taken a long time to appreciate its seriousness. It was extremely difficult to get medical help. 'Prevention is the way forward. We need to look for ergonomic solutions,' said Dr Buckle, who has been studying the syndrome for more than 10 years. He added that the recent controversial ruling by a High Court judge that there was no such thing as RSI, had now been discounted by unions, employers and lawyers.

Launching a TUC guide to raise awareness of the illness, Dick Pickering, president of the GMB general union, said RSI and associated complaints were now costing the economy at least pounds 1bn a year.

The figure was based on data from the Government, insurers and unions, he said. It was made up of pounds 96m in lost income for sufferers; pounds 65m in benefits paid to those who are unable to work; pounds 343m in treatment and pounds 278m in lost production because of absence. A further pounds 135m was lost in lower productivity because of the impact on workers' efficiency and pounds 88m in costs to employers of insurance, coping with sickness and absence, and retraining and recruitment to replace sufferers.

Mr Pickering said that while 200,000 people a year took time off work, the TUC estimated that at least as many again were 'suffering in silence'.

The TUC booklet, written by Dr Buckle and his colleague Joanne Hoffman, which is meant to be a practical guide for workplace union safety representatives, formed a key part of the TUC's national campaign against RSI, launched earlier this year.

Mr Pickering said many people were 'frightened to death' to complain to employers about the condition for fear of being dismissed.

He expected the numbers suffering from the condition to grow in the Nineties and into the next century. 'As more cases go to court and more substantial settlements are awarded we hope that someone will finally get the message.'

Despite the ruling by Judge Prosser at the High Court, subsequent awards have been made to sufferers and the TUC estimates that there are hundreds of further cases pending. Unions believe the syndrome will prove as devastating as pneumoconiosis was in the mining industry.

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