Repetitive Stress: The Pain Has Just Begun

Reporters at The New York Times didn't know what hit them. After the Metropolitan and Business Day desks switched to a computer system with Atex Inc. keyboards last summer, upwards of 100 reporters and editors began complaining about wrist and other pains. The Times didn't have such sweeping problems with its old system, and no one knew what was causing the injuries. But before long, reporters were out of commission for weeks or even months. "When it happened, it happened very quickly," says one of the injured.

The Times has since taken steps to make its reporters and editors more comfortable, but for some, the damage has already been done. Roughly a dozen Times staffers are preparing for a long, nasty brawl with Atex and its parent, Eastman Kodak Co., in court. They're filing suits claiming that Atex keyboards had design flaws. The plaintiffs will argue that the equipment manufacturers knew or should have inown about the defects, yet failed to warn users--charges Atex and Kodak vehemently dispute. (Some of the same models are used by BUSINESS WEEK.) "The Atex system was state-of-the-art when it first came out in the early 1970s, and it has been improved upon steadily since then," says Edward J. Burns, a Rochester (N.Y.) lawyer for Atex and Kodak.

The Times cases are part of a new legal assault that has all the signs of becoming one of the largest--and most contentious--litigations of the decade. With more workers complaining of repetitive-stress injuries (RSIs) from extended computer use, the courts are being flooded with damage claims. Among scientists and doctors, the cause and severity of such injuries are fiercely debated. And researchers are at a loss to explain why the same equipment causes injuries in some offices and not in others. But plaintiffs' lawyers, such as Manhattan attorney Steven J. Phillips, are calling the injuries an "epidemic" and comparing the surging suits to the massive litigation over asbestos.

RSIs are muscular or skeletal injuries to the hand, wrist, and other areas that bear the brunt of repetitive motion. Also known as cumulative-trauma disorders, the injuries have nearly doubled since 1985. RSIs in offices and factories are responsible for 56% of all workplace illnesses--185,000 reported cases in 1990. Workers' compensation claims and other expenses from these injuries may cost employers as much as $20 billion a year, estimates Aetna Life & Casualty.

ROUND ONE. Despite the growing dimensions of the problem, defense lawyers say the only common link between RSIs and the killer asbestos is the lawyers filing the suits. Still, the plaintiffs won round one: A prominent federal judge in Brooklyn, Jack B. Weinstein, agreed in June to treat the hand-injury cases in the same fashion as asbestos and other "mass torts." He consolidated 44 of the suits into one giant lawsuit that lets the plaintiffs' lawyers join forces. The move gives the cases more credibility--and that attracts even more litigation.

The vast majority of suits are filed by aching reporters, data processors, and telephone operators against such manufacturers of their equipment as IBM, American Telephone & Telegraph Co., Unisys Corp., and others. That's because workers' compensation laws bar virtually all employees from going after their own companies and curb payouts. But the Americans with Disabilities Act--which takes effect July 26--may make it easier for workers who become disabled on the job to sue employers.

Employers are already being hit in Europe. In December, a British court found that the failure of British Telecommunications PLC to provide suitable chairs "substantially contributed" to the RSIs of two data processors and awarded roughly $12,000 to each. It was the first time a British court found an employer partly responsible for the injuries. Four months later, a court ordered carmaker Vauxhall Motors Ltd. to pay a record $106,000 to an injured machine operator. Both companies are planning appeals. Meanwhile, the European Community has set a Jan. 1, 1993, deadline for employers in the 12 member countries to meet stiff health and safety standards intended to cut RSI risks for VDT users.

U.S. companies are mulling what to do. The most aggressive are redesigning workstations (table). Federal Express Corp. formed a task force that meets regularly to tackle safety concerns. And Hewlett-Packard Co. is trying out desks that at the touch of a button allow users to type sitting or standing. But murky science and a lack of federal standards have made some companies unable--or unwilling--to respond. RSIs "are becoming a major, major problem for Corporate America," says Daniel J. Sitomer, a New York lawyer who counsels employers. "Companies are having a very hard time trying to develop management programs to deal with it."

RSIs have been a problem in factories for years but appeared in offices only with the explosion in personal computers. Workers using typewriters performed a host of activities, from replacing paper to pushing the carriage return, that PCs don't require, which probably reduced their risk of injury.

There has also been a change in perception among doctors. Edward A. Rankin, an orthopedic surgeon in Washington, recalls that when he finished his training in 1970, "the general agreement" was that work didn't cause the injuries. Now, Rankin says, it is "well-accepted medically" that RSIs are "work-induced" or "work-aggravated."

But scientists haven't pinpointed exactly what about work is to blame. And the debate is likely to heat up soon. The National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health is about to release what could be its most comprehensive study yet on the subject: a three-year probe of musculoskeletal disorders among dial-assistance operators at Denver-based U.S. West Inc. Evaluating 500 workers and nearly 250 workstations, the report followed one of the first product-injury suits brought by 29 U.S. West operators against workstation maker Computer Consoles Inc., which settled in 1990 for an undisclosed sum. The report is expected to conclude, says David LeGrande, health and safety director for the Communications Workers of America, which requested the study with U.S. West, that RSIs are "significant problems even in well-designed work areas" and can be tied to many factors, including work load and supervisor support.

Even union leaders and plaintiffs' lawyers concede that the lack of definitive data could mean an uphill battle in the courts. And the cases are zeroing in on equipment that often was made years before the injuries became prevalent. So far, no RSI case has gone to trial, but since some Newsday reporters filed suit over their Atex keyboards in June, 1990, hundreds of workers have sued over various products. The cases make essentially the same arguments: The equipment is flawed, and the manufacturers knew or should have known about the injury risks but failed to warn.

IBM, for one, is fighting a handful of suits around the country, including a case in California by Lorraine Bergstrom. The data-entry clerk claims that after typing on an IBM PC for about a year, she developed carpal tunnel syndrome--in which the nerves serving the hands are compressed--and was unable to work. IBM wouldn't comment on the case specifically, but spokesman Brian Doyle says in general that "our products are well designed and safe to use."

ALTERNATIVES. The suits against Atex are among the most numerous. They allege that the Atex keyboards force users to slam down the keys as though they were "pounding their fingers into cement," says one lawyer. Another alleged problem: certain keyboard models are too high, which could strain the wrists. As proof that Atex knew about such hazards, the plaintiffs' lawyers point, in part, to events in Australia: By the mid-1980s, the country had a near-epidemic of RSIs involving computers. Atex denies those allegations emphatically.

At the moment, plaintiffs' lawyers are fighting for internal Atex documents that they say support their claims of prior knowledge. One key document obtained by BUSINESS WEEK in the court file is an April, 1990, memo by a Kodak human-factors expert, William H. Cushman. He found that the high Atex keyboards far exceeded keyboard height standards in Germany. The memo also states that a Kodak medical authority on RSIs recommended that Atex provide forearm rests with the high keyboards, and that workers predisposed to the injuries "be given reduced output quotas or alternative work." But the doctor added that the keyboards were "the least significant factor" in getting RSI. Atex declined to discuss the memo because its release is on appeal.

As such cases play out, the injuries will likely spur other kinds of battles. Management lawyers are already urging companies to dust off agreements with hardware providers to see whether they can sue for damages on the ground that the RSIs amount to a breach of contract. Meanwhile, the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration is preparing ergonomics standards, but they won't be ready for years. And until science provides a definitive answer, the courts will be left to sort out who is responsible for the injuries and pain that have become a growing part of the computer age.

      WORKSTATION SOLUTIONS Aetna Life & Casualty replaced World War II-era chairs 
      with ergonomically designed ones with lower-back supports, adjustable seats, 
      and armrests
      SPECIALIZED TRAINING U.S. West created "Worksmart," a one-on-one 
      operator-training program. Operators' work habits are videotaped and analyzed 
      for work speed and posture. Exercises help stretch and flex hands and wrists. A 
      metronome helps operators work at a smooth pace
      TOTAL OFFICE ENVIRONMENT Los Angeles Times created an "RSI Room," complete 
      with hand weights and ice packs for employees recuperating from 
      repetitive-stress injuries. Added hourly "Take A Break" reminders to in-house 
      software. Developed three new keyboards
      DATA: BW
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