The medical condition that is known as carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) and related disorders belonging to the category of cumulative trauma disorders (CTD) are among the most widespread and most frequently discussed workplace disorders.
Background to the problem
CTS results from the entrapment of one of three main nerves supplying the hand as it go through the wrist. It can be diagnosed by a physical exam and an objective diagnostic test called nerve conduction velocity and EMG. Related ailments or CTDs as a group may be harder to diagnose because objective diagnostic tests are not yet available for all of them.
Common symptoms to train employees to watch for: An early sign of CTS is a change in the sensations in your hand such as tingling or just being aware that the hand doesn’t feel right. Later on, pain, numbness or weakness may occur.
If ignored, CTS can progress to the loss of hand-muscle control and crippling.
As if difficulty in diagnosing CTDs weren’t bad enough, once a person has gotten to the advanced stages of a CTD, the symptoms are often impossible to reverse completely.
Implication for businesses
Prevention of such ailments is a company’s best and virtually only defense. The next best defense is trying to help workers who do become affected as soon as the very first symptoms appear.
Risk of ignoring early signs:
Once symptoms become severe, the employee will probably face disability leave and prolonged medical treatment with surgery the most likely treatment for very severe cases.
Result: The cost of coping with an employee suffering from a CTD very often falls most heavily on the business through its health insurance and disability insurance policies. Difficulty of diagnosis notwithstanding, CTS and related conditions are a real and growing problem for business.
Reducing the risk
Employees are most at risk when they do repetitive tasks, especially when they must work in an awkward manner, using poorly designed tools and equipment.
Increased use of computers is believed to be a leading cause because of several factors involving work style and use of the body while at the computer.
Assume that complaints of CTS are real and justified. In fact, since symptoms are progressive, the more you can encourage workers to come forward at the first hint of possible trouble, the better for the worker and for the business.
Milder cases, caught early, may be stopped from progressing by making minor changes in the work function, coupled with physical therapy to ease the symptoms. Some people may be able to continue working at a fairly high level while getting treatment. But often, significant changes in work pace and work style are needed to arrest progression of the symptoms.
Additional preventive measures
• Listen to employee complaints
Listen to employee complaints that certain jobs, especially repetitive jobs, are causing discomfort or pain. Worker complaints of headaches, neck or back pain, persisting fatigue of hand and arm muscles, and changes in sensation from these parts can all be early warning signs of CTDs.
• Adjust workstations
Watch out for employees who look uncomfortable at their tasks. Watch for jobs that seem to force workers into awkward postures. Are work desks and tables adjustable for the workers using them? Are there tools that workers seem to be having trouble using? Listen for complaints that certain tools “just don’t feel right.” Don’t assume that “one size fits all” when it comes to office equipment. Some equipment may have to be redesigned to accommodate individual workers.
• Redesign jobs to minimize repetitive motions
Try to rotate jobs among several employees so no one worker must perform the same task over and over again. If repetitive work can’t be reduced, at least provide frequent breaks and rest periods.
• Reduce stress
Since stress or workplace organizational factors are apparently contributing factors to some CTDs, do whatever is possible to reduce the stress level in the workplace. If frequent absences and irritability levels are increasing, it is likely that stress is too great.
• Consider using outside expertise
Seek the nearest university hospital center that has an occupational health clinic with experience in research in this relatively new field. Consult with people on the staff who have experience in spotting and eliminating workplace hazards.
Caution: Many entrepreneurs have begun to do business in ergonomics claiming expertise in preventing CTDs. The quality of many of these so-called experts is hard to evaluate.