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Success Puts the Bite on Computer Injury Network

TIMES STAFF WRITER

You probably didn’t see the obituary. It ran on Page 2 of something called VDT News, a computer safety and health newsletter out of New York.

The obit recorded the impending death of the 3 1/2-year-old Computer Injury Network in Los Angeles. The network has functioned as a national information clearinghouse for people who disable themselves while working on computers: data programmers, airline reservations clerks, accountants--even one person who simply played too much Nintendo.

Ultimately, there were too many of these people for the lone woman behind the Computer Injury Network to handle.

A thousand computer victims, about one a day, have found Samantha Greenberg’s telephone number and called her small apartment in Brentwood with stories about how their jobs were ruining their wrists and elbows and shoulders and backs.

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Many were afraid to complain to their bosses for fear of being fired, or afraid of confiding in a would-be employer for fear of rejection. They were desperate for advice on big questions: Should I have surgery? Should I file a lawsuit? Will this be permanent? Just how did I hurt myself?

Greenberg turned herself into a computer injury expert at age 44 after she pushed herself too hard at computerized bookkeeping and could do the work no more. She became regarded as the nation’s only citizen activist devoting herself full time to the cause of ailing computer workers. But eventually, phone calls from the walking wounded overwhelmed her. The calls began to kill her soul the same way a computer had killed her arms.

And so the Computer Injury Network, a place of uncommon sympathy for people with increasingly common workplace injuries, will stop taking those calls on Friday.

“I think there comes a time--I don’t know how to say this--when you’ve got to get out of the mold of being a victim,” Greenberg says. “I don’t want to go through life being a victim. It’s time for me to go on.

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“I spoke to a group of nuns a month ago at Loyola Marymount about what I do. By the time I got finished talking to them, they were feeling really sorry for me. I don’t want people feeling sorry for me. I’m not dying. I don’t have cancer. I’m not falling apart.”

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Greenberg’s experience has been another small episode in the industrial world’s growing battle between technology and biology.

Huge numbers of computers have been installed in offices during the last two decades without any notion of what happens over the long haul when people spend their days keyboarding data or sliding grocery items over computerized scanners.

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Despite pressure from labor unions and activists, neither the federal government nor the state has adopted laws requiring general ergonomic standards in the workplace.

Into this regulatory void wander people like Greenberg. They get hurt, stumble around looking for help and disappear again between the cracks. The most you normally see of their pain is the scars from surgery or, more commonly, the Velcro-strapped supports wrapped around their forearms.

In this world, small, unseen gestures of despair percolate. In Chicago a few years ago, reservations clerks for a major airline became so upset about being forced to sit at their computers all day with minimal breaks that they began to stand in unison at a fixed time each morning--a gesture of rebellion against inhuman efficiency standards.

Greenberg hurt her arms working at a keyboard for a dermatologist. She underwent surgery but was unable to return to work. Trying to understand what had befallen her, she spent time reading about computer injuries. Finally, she took her $35,000 workers’ compensation settlement and put on a computer injury seminar.

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She hooked up with a variety of government agencies and worker-advocacy groups. Gradually, she became known as a Jack-of-all-experts on computer work hazards and installed a second phone line to handle the increasing number of calls. Journals and clippings cluttered her apartment. Even some businesses plagued by workers with computer injuries called for advice.

“It’s been my baby,” she says, as she prepares to call the telephone company to take out the injury phone line. “No one gave me a book and said, ‘Samantha, this is how you do it. This is Step 1 through 10.’ I had to fly by the seat of my pants.”

Yet there is something debilitating about a cause that consumes your life.

“I’m burned out,” she says. “I didn’t know what that meant, really, until I joined a discussion group of women. The woman who leads it told me I had nowhere to put the emotion I was getting over the phone from workers who called me. ‘Professionals, they know what to do with that sort of input. They’ve been trained. You haven’t been trained,’ she told me. All I was doing was taking in this negative energy. It’s not healthy.”

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The accountant who figures income taxes for Greenberg and her husband informed her that her income for 1992 was $200. It was time to go back into the job market. “I’m not sure as what,” she says. “I don’t know who’s going to touch me.” For now, she’s working at her husband’s advertising agency.

Greenberg is still committed to her issues. She’ll keep popping up at public hearings in support of mandatory ergonomic standards--laws that would require employers to give computer workers frequent breaks and supply them with adjustable equipment to fit each individual’s posture.

“I will never give up stressing how badly I want legislation to prevent this from happening to other people,” she says.

Greenberg takes with her poignant memories. The ones that tug most strongly are the single women, she says: “The ones who were divorced, or whose husband had skipped out and they were working injured, and they weren’t going to tell anyone.

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“Sometimes I just had to listen.”


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