Could RSI risks of laptop usage beget legal risks?

Summary:Today's News.com has a report by Alorie Gilbert on the health risks that mobile users may be running through the repeated use of poorly positioned notebooks.

Today's News.com has a report by Alorie Gilbert on the health risks that mobile users may be running through the repeated use of poorly positioned notebooks.  See Is your laptop a pain in the neck?  After reporting that doctors expect to see a lot more pains, strains and injuries among white collar workers as people ditch desktop computers to work full time on laptops, Gilbert quotes Alan Hedge, director of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory at Cornell University as saying, "The idea [behind laptop/notebook computers] was portability for occasional use. It was never intended to be a machine you would work at for eight hours a day, 52 weeks a year." 

As I read Gilbert's report, the one question that kept recurring to me was whether or not mobile users who are forced to use notebooks in the course of doing their work (for example, mobile health care professionals) could turn this sort of story into the basis of a lawsuit.  Not just against their employers, but also against the manufacturers of the notebook computers. The answer, of course, has to be yes.  In the last decade, many employers have had to pay significant damages as a result of lawsuits that were brought against them by employees claiming that they were suffering from  repetitive stress injuries (RSI) as a result of the computer usage required by their jobs.  But the precedent setter may have come in 1996 when Digital Equipment Corporation (later just "Digital", then "Compaq," and now "HP") was successfully sued as a manufacturer for $5.3 million.  Between that case and an earlier one in which the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined DEC for keyboard injuries suffered by its own employees, DEC may have been the first company to be sued as both a manufacturer and employer.  So, the news about notebooks may be putting both on legal notice.  

For some reason, I'm reminded of how, in the 1979 classic  The Jerk, Steve Martin gets sued for causing permanent cross-eyedness with an invention (the Optigrab) designed to keep eyeglasses from sliding down one's nose. (If you're willing to pierce the bridge of your nose, Engadget has a report on 21st century real-world version of Martin's invention).   I digress.

I do not have mixed emotions about the computer-induced RSI phenomenon.  The opportunists who milk "the system" infuriate me.   Since the late 1980s when I first started using Zenith's laptops (and eventually moved on to IBM's Thinkpad), I've probably averaged better than eight hours per day on a portable system of one sort or another.  On top of that, three of the disks in my lower back have been in a ruptured state for more than four years. Just sitting is a pain for me.  The more painful my back is, the more tightly wound up and stressed the rest of me is.  My neck is tight, and my teeth are sometimes clenched.  All this while many times squeezed into a middle seat in the back of an airplane with my computer perched on the seat-back tray while the person in front of me has his seat reclined so much that I have to crane my neck for four hours just to get a decent view of the downward angled display.  Not to mention that my neighbors are dominating the armrests (elbows in, baby).   If there ever was a walking case study for the type of person who is at risk for serious workstation-induced RSI, I'm it. 

But after close to 20 years of working with mobile systems for more than eight hours a day (these days, it has got to be around 12 thanks to the blogosphere), you're not going to get a peep out of me.  There are a lot of jobs out there that I could do.  But I choose to do this one and when I'm doing it, beyond asking my employer for a chair that's more supportive of my lower back than the average chair (just speak up!. right?),  I've taken it upon myself to deal with my pain.  Both in and out of work, common sense has told me to change my habits to make sure that when I sit down at my computer (or anywhere else), that I'm not so incapacitated that I cannot work. For example, if you  bump into me in an airport or at a trade show, you will not see me carrying my notebook in a shoulder bag where its stressing out my disks.  You will see it on this wheely that I pull around with me.  Today, they make computer bags with wheels and a retractable handles.  I think I'll get one.  While at the recent Syndicate Conference in New York, I noticed that many people are moving to bigger notebooks, not smaller.  Perhaps they should be thinking about such a bag, too.  Maybe their employers should be suggesting it as a precautionary measure (even paying for it if such a big system is really required).

I take my time getting into cars and taxis (instead of diving into them) and use my knees instead of my back to pick up anything, even if it weighs 1 oz.  Abdominal exercises are supposed to be good for people with bad backs because it helps shift the burden of torso support.  I know I need to do them. Sometimes, when my forearms or wrists start getting a painful sensation, I do push ups.  Don't ask me why.  Squeezing tennis balls or something like them never worked.  Push ups seem to get all the muscles in in my arms and upper torso going and loosens them up.  When I travel and my neck is stiff from pretending to be a flamingo in the middle seat, I sometimes take a hot bath in my hotel room.   

The point is that when we start to feel the onset of pain, there are lots of effective things we can try to offset our plight.  For me, calling my lawyer has never been one of them.  Neither has taking 6 months or a year off for paid medical leave.  I've seen people do this.  Not only does the company have to continue to pay their salary, but they can't fire the person and they may not have the financial resources to hire a temporary replacement.  The result is that everyone else around them has to take over a part of their job.  That's what really makes me get uptight and clench my teeth.  Not working in front of a notebook.

Unfortunately, this is the reality of the litigious world we live in.  I don't mean to be insensitive to those of you in pain.  But I know pain.  The sort that lays you out in bed for weeks at a time.  When I bent over that fateful day and my disks popped -- all three at the same time -- I didn't call my lawyer to tell her that it was because I'd been hauling a notebook around for ten years. I could have.  I went to work the next day, from bed, instead. 

So, what's an employer to do in order to offset the potential liability of repetitively stressed employee? Let me preface this with "I am not a lawyer" and that you should consult a lawyer any time you're seeking to minimize legal risk and exposure.   But, common sense tells me that you need to be proactive in dealing with it.  Demonstrably prove you're sensitive to the issue and that you're not in any way shape or form trying to take advantage of employees.  Teach employees how to spot RSI long before it incapacitates them (or you).  Based on information that can undoubtedly be obtained from your group insurer, come up with checklists for employees to follow in order to prevent RSI as well as to respond to it (for example, don't wait to seek help from a physician).  Recommend things like backpacks with wheels and ergonomic chairs and pay for them.  Start up a company wiki where people can share their successes stories with whatever worked for them in overcoming pain (be it push-ups, Tai-Chi, or yoga) or talk about a great doctor they found.  As they become available, publish new medical findings on RSI-related issues to the entire company and identify external resources such as the UK-based Repetitive Strain Injury Association (RSIA) that have compiled documentation that can help companies and individuals deal with RSI.  For example, the RSIA's No-Cost Computer Tips for avoiding RSI.

Topics: Laptops

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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