Sprain and Pain Wane

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Whatever happened to carpal tunnel syndrome? There was a time in the late 1980s and early ’90s when carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) and other musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) haunted newsrooms and executive suites alike with the specter of longtime copy editors succumbing to lifelong crippling pain, or reporters ? their arms wrapped as they recovered from uncertain surgeries ? struggling against deadlines with the era’s sluggish voice-recognition software. In the conventional wisdom of the time, the computer keyboard and mouse that had revolutionized newsroom workflow insidiously threatened to strangle productivity one tingling hand at a time.

Reporting in 1991 on what was billed as the newspaper industry’s first conference devoted solely to the problem of MSDs ? then called RSI, or repetitive strain injury ? an E&P article warned of growing legal and medical liabilities for newspapers. Worse, the story added, there was no known cure for RSI.

And then, just as suddenly, all the furor over carpal tunnel syndrome and other MSDs went silent. Nowadays, the Newspaper Association of America no longer monitors MSDs in newsrooms. On the union side, the Newspaper Guild’s national expert on MSDs retired years ago and was never replaced. Even the federal government’s workplace health research arm, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), has stopped tracking CTS, a spokesman says: “The last stuff we have (on CTS) dates back to that era, the 1980s and the 1990s.”

So what happened? To many newspaper chains, what happened was a not quite complete victory of ergonomics over the disorders, a kind of elimination of polio without the March of Dimes. But the top safety and health official for the Communications Workers of America says the newsroom problems are continuing ? what’s changed is the politics of the current White House, which has succeeded in hiding the issue by killing federal workplace ergonomic standards.

Adding to the confusion, many respected orthopedic physicians now argue that CTS was never the threat it appeared to be ? and that, more likely than not, long hours at the copy desk don’t cause MSDs, but only aggravate a condition that developed irrespective of someone’s occupation.

“Newspaper people have stopped obsessing on carpal tunnel syndrome? Good,” says Dr. Leon Benson, an orthopedic surgeon who is an associate professor at Northwestern University’s medical school. Benson says the frenzy started for reasons that aren’t clear, and stopped when physicians realized, first, that MSDs may be something more like a disease such as diabetes than a result of workplace stress, and second, that they can be treated successfully. “The average person I see in my practice is usually a 38-year-old woman with two kids,” Dr. Benson says. “It’s not someone who’s typing on a keyboard all day.”

Though no one’s keeping reliable statistics anymore, the anecdotal evidence is clear that CTS is abating, newspapers say.

At Dow Jones & Co., for instance, Director of Environmental and Safety Paul Jakubski says that after a peak in incidents several years ago, the chain simply doesn’t see much CTS anymore. With the ongoing ergonomics programs, plus an on-call consultant for specific complaints, employee discomfort rarely gets to the point of CTS that needs significant medical attention, he says: “We really don’t see too many actual carpal tunnel syndrome cases.”

Similarly, Gannett Co. believes its three-part program of sensitizing newsroom managers to ergonomic issues, providing proper equipment, and sending physician advisers to newsrooms at the first sign of symptoms has headed off major problems.

“And once we started looking vigorously for cases, it turned out that a lot of symptoms that look like CTS are not,” says spokesperson Tara Connell. “So we’ve headed off some cases, fixed others, and discovered other cases are not carpal tunnel.”

In the years when MSDs first came to industry attention, the Chicago Newspaper Guild ? which represents newsroom employees at the Chicago Sun-Times and several other area papers ? was among the union locals most aggressive in making ergonomics a bargaining priority. The strategy eventually worked, says Executive Director Gerald Minkkinen.

At the Sun-Times, for instance, computers were placed haphazardly on beat-up desks that came with chairs that barely had a back, let alone an ergonomic design. “We were coming up with a bunch of people wearing splints, and they eventually figured out they were losing a lot of productivity and health insurance money,” says Minkkinen. “If you see the newsroom now, those workstations are night-and-day to what they were using before. Everything is adjustable, and employees can re-posture themselves to avoid injures.”

Still, he argues that while severe injuries may be fewer, MSD problems have not gone away.

Not by a long shot, adds David LaGrande, health and safety director for the Communications Workers of America, the Guild’s parent union. LaGrande argues the Bush administration and its congressional allies succeeded in burying the issue by preventing the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) from promulgating ergonomic standards. The precipitous drops in reported MSD injuries in industries such as meat-packing and telecommunications, he says, are evidence only that employers are no longer required to document these kinds of injuries.

Union priorities have shifted, too. LaGrande notes that two of the Guild locals most active on ergonomics, Philadelphia and San Jose, Calif., have been preoccupied more recently with preserving jobs under the old and new owners of their members’ biggest newspaper employers.

LaGrande says the union’s most recent survey of MSD incidents among newspaper members, which goes back five or six years, showed “high rates” of the disorders, as well as “high rates” of occupational stress in general. “Needless to say, anyone who follows the industry knows its problems ? particularly regarding stress ? are through the roof, and haven’t been eliminated,” he adds. Unions are “burned out” on fighting over CTS and other workplace ergonomic issues now, he adds, but they won’t be forever.

“The issue is very much alive, it just has to be rekindled,” LaGrande says. “And I think it will. I’m an optimist.”

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