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RSI Exists. Does Not. Does Too ...

Remember when experts labored to tell us that cigarette smoking wasn’t so bad? The thought comes to mind as I tap at this keyboard and, ouch, I feel a stab of pain in my wrist.

Or is it in my head? Maybe my arm hurts because of the chili peppers that gave me indigestion and kept me awake last night, leaving me fatigued. Perhaps my underwear is too tight. Thanks to George W. Bush, I guess we’ll have to argue this one all over again.

The administration is reopening the debate over ergonomic regulations and workplace injuries. These are miseries such as carpal tunnel syndrome that occur from poor habits and long hours at the keyboard, and no doubt a multitude of other factors.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor: 600,000 employees missed work in 1999 because of musculoskeletal disorder, or MSD, as a result of repeated, stressful or awkward motion on the job.

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According to the U.S. Public Health Service: “A substantial body of credible epidemiologic research provides strong evidence of an association between MSDs and certain work-related physical factors.” This was the conclusion of 77 researchers synthesizing the results of more than 600 scientific studies--a report peer-reviewed by 27 experts at universities, medical centers, insurance companies and corporations.

According to Bill Gates: My new Microsoft keyboard poses a danger. Affixed to its underside is an orange Health Warning! The sticker acknowledges “general agreement” that using a keyboard and mouse can cause MSD.

According to experts that the Bush administration has invited into the debate: It’s all a bunch of hooey.

Have you noticed? When science favors their aims, the corner-cutters of free enterprise stand up for science. When science disagrees with them, they go searching for more compliant scientists. We end up in another of those discussions like we had in third grade at recess: Does! Does not! Does so ....

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Forgive me for being obvious, but do we really have to endure the insult of a Swedish doctor who is given center stage at the administration’s kickoff hearing last month to tell us that depression and stress and other personal problems, not our jobs, are chiefly responsible for back pain? And furthermore, he said, if we suffer from it, we don’t deserve time off. “Better to stay at work with a little pain than to adopt a lifestyle of disability,” he testified.

Thank you, doctor. If it hurts to tug on our bootstraps, we’ll come to work in our slippers.

Do we really have to endure an occupational physician who is given the spotlight to express her “serious doubts” whether ergonomic injuries exist at all? “Scientific evidence does not support that carpal tunnel syndrome is caused by keyboards,” she testified.

When I served in the Marine Corps, we had a name for these kind of people. We called them one-percenters--they could never get in step. Usually we didn’t let them handle ammunition or anything sharp.

It’s been a decade now that we’ve been wrangling over whether, and how, the federal government ought to protect people who work on assembly lines, in packing plants, in offices and elsewhere from these injuries. President Clinton adopted regulations just before he left office. Business lobby groups imposed on his successor to seek their repeal. The Republican Congress obliged two months later.

Now, the Bush administration is undertaking to give the subject fresh airing.

But instead of serious inquiry into a murky subject, as promised, Bush’s Labor secretary, Elaine Chao, has opened on a farcical note, stacking her hearing with naysayers.

Yes, there are legitimate issues to ponder. For instance, many businesses, including the one I work for, have invested heavily in ergonomics for the sake of a healthy work force. To what extent should they have to conform to some new regulatory scheme just because other businesses are in denial?

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I don’t have the answer but I’m open to listening. I won’t, however, take seriously the idea that MSD, or repetitive stress injury, RSI, or whatever you want to call it, is some workplace fad that we dreamed up because we are conniving freeloaders who forgot the great American principle: no pain, no gain. Hut hut.

Chao’s hearings bear an extra burden. The president is attempting to transform his loss of the popular vote into a sweeping mandate. He has deferred a whole range of public health initiatives, from clean water to clean air. He tells us we need to rethink the direction of the country for the good of the country. At the very least, we can ask that he not take us for fools as he starts out.

Chao attempted to quiet protesters at this opening hearing with an admonition: “We can do one of two things, starting today. We can play politics or we can protect workers.”

Excellent idea. For her next step, I recommend that she consider the advice of Paul Marxhausen at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, a seven-year sufferer of keyboard-related injury. In a paper about the subject, he recommended: “If your doctor doesn’t seem to know much about RSI, find one who does.”


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