Are You Ending Your Career by Working Your Job?

Those who work in Manual Material Handling (MMH) know that there are risks associated with the job. They know that forklift accidents or lifting with their backs may cause enough wrongwaydamage to end their careers. What people forget, however, is that aches and pains from repetitive work can also ultimately end a career.

Repetitive tasks, forceful exertions, pushing and pulling, and awkward positions commonly cause a number of conditions that fall under the umbrella of Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSIs).  When caught early, RSIs are treatable and reversible.  Wait too long to address them, however, and a person faces costly therapies, irreversible damage, loss of income, and an overall negative change to the quality of life. So how can someone in MMH distinguish between “regular” pain from working and the onset of RSI?

Even when your body is healthy, new and/or regular activity will cause fatigue and soreness. Our bodies need to build up stamina, and they also are built to recover from activity in a relatively short amount of time.

When a job requires repetitive, consistent activity, however, the body may not recover fully. This is why musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) like carpal tunnel syndrome and other RSIs are the most common injuries in the US. So unfortunately, any pain, fatigue, or soreness can be a symptom of a problem brewing.

Some examples of RSIs:

  • Tendinitis
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Thoracic outlet syndrome
  • Golfer’s elbow
  • Tennis elbow
  • Stenosing tenosynovitis
  • Cubital tunnel syndrome
  • Radial tunnel syndrome

The signs and symptoms of RSIs generally include:

  • Pain
  • Aching
  • Tiredness
  • Weakness/lack of endurance
  • Short bursts of pain
  • Pain worsened by activity

These symptoms can be felt anywhere in the wrists, arms, shoulders, neck or legs. These general symptoms are only part of the story, though. When in the early stage of an RSI, these symptoms are typically felt during work and improve when activity stops or overnight. This early stage is when the treatment may still be minimal and the condition reversible. It can last weeks or months.

In the second stage, these symptoms may be felt during or after work. Physical signs like swelling or redness may start to show. The discomfort or pain might start earlier in the work day, and could disrupt sleep as symptoms linger longer into the night. This stage can also last months. When your endurance for work decreases or rest is no longer erasing the pain, consult a physician and talk to your boss. If you have a RSI, it may still be reversible in this stage, but immediate action is necessary. If it progresses to stage three, you may have a life-long condition.

In the third stage, the symptoms are most severe. They are felt when a person is completely at rest. They may also interfere with light, regular daily activity. If caught in this stage, it is more likely to be irreversible, and the person may never regain full use of the affected part. This impacts both home and career life.

What Can You Do?

You know you don’t want to face physical and financial hardship. You also know that you and/or your coworkers have felt pain as described above at the end of a long day. How do you keep it from becoming a lifelong problem?

Frequent breaks, stretching, job rotation, and proper sleep and nutrition can all help. Some of these things are more in your control than others. For the things that are in the control of your manager, talk to him or her. Sometimes they need ideas on how to improve safety. Some of them don’t realize the devastating consequences injured workers have on the company. Lost time at work, insurance claims, and training all have long-term effects on the financial success of a business.

The most successful changes you or a manager can make to a MMH job are ergonomic. This has been proven again and again – it’s why OSHA and NIOSH have so many guidelines and incentives dealing with ergonomics. Lasting changes using ergonomics can include layout redesign, changing the height of workstations, and safety training. More concrete changes come through purchasing equipment built to replace some physical labor.

Many machines have been designed to address the major activities connected with MSDs. There is equipment to push and pull heavy loads, lift or tip parts to minimize bending, and rotate workstations. More specialized equipment exists, too, depending on your field. Whatever the task, research the ergonomic equipment that will do that task.

If you feel like it isn’t your job to fix the ergonomic or safety situation at your work, remember this: your manager isn’t the one who has to live the rest of your life in pain. Be proactive.

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