Repetitive strain injury

Repetitive strain injury (RSI) is one of a number of general names given to a range of potentially disabling conditions – others include work-related upper limb disorders (WRULDs), overuse injuries and cumulative trauma disorder.

Tenosinovitus is probably the best known and most widely diagnosed RSI – but there are many others, such as tendinitis, epicondylitis and carpal tunnel syndrome.

This guide aims to explain the most common causes of these injuries, what can be done to prevent them and advice for members who suspect they might have RSI.

What is RSI?

RSls affect the muscles, tendons and other soft tissue in the hands, arms, shoulders and neck. The early signs of RSI can include:

  • numbness or tingling sensations in the arm or hand
  • aches, pains or tenderness in muscles or joints
  • loss of strength and grip in the hands
  • loss of sensation in the fingers – or whiteness towards the tips
  • crackling sensations in joints or muscles.

It is important to remember that RSls are progressive conditions – and they will not get better on their own.

If the damage is allowed to continue, these symptoms, which may clear up overnight to start with, will get worse and will last longer.

Permanent disability can be the end result of trying to 'grin and bear it'.

Early action can overcome the cause and pain of RSls and allow you to continue working.

What causes RSI?

RSl can be caused by work, sports or activities in the home – or a combination of these factors.

PCS is concerned to ensure that the main work-related causes are addressed. These include:

  • awkward postures or grips
  • repetitive actions
  • poorly designed workstations or tools
  • excessive twisting and gripping
  • static muscle loading
  • lack of breaks and changes of activity.

Workstation checklist

  • Ensure workstation is large enough to allow you to arrange your equipment and paperwork to suit you and your work.

  • Ensure your chair is fully adjustable for seat and back height – and is adjusted correctly.
  • Ensure that your chair is adjusted so that your hands and wrists are in a straight line when your hands rest on the centre row of keys.
  • Ensure that when your chair is set to the right height, your feet can rest flat on the floor or that you are provided with a footrest.
  • Ensure that you can place the keyboard with space in front to rest your hands when not keying.
  • Ensure that your screen is free from glare or reflections.
  • Ensure that your screen is free from dirt or dust that make it more difficult to see.
  • Ensure that you take regular breaks away from the screen and keyboard – either doing other tasks or resting.

Who is at risk from RSI?

Anyone whose work includes one or more of the causes shown above – including office workers using VDUs, users of vibrating equipment (such as chainsaws), machine operators, cooks or cleaners – could develop work related RSI.

Duties on employers

All employers have a legal duty to safeguard the health and safety of their workers.

They must carry out risk assessments, provide well-designed jobs and workstations and train their staff in good working practice and posture. 

Users of vibrating tools now have further protection, as the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005 now require employers to undertake specific risk assessment and, if shown necessary, to measure the amount of vibration that a worker is exposed to over the working day.

If this is above the set action level, further steps will be required to reduce the risks of hand/arm vibration syndrome.

What to do if you suspect you have RSI

The first priority is to report your suspicions and symptoms to your PCS Safety Rep. They can advise you further and help you to get changes made to your workplace or work pattern. 

Report the symptoms to your line manger as well – preferably in writing. Get it noted in the accident book.

If you are covered by the Civil Service Pension Scheme ask about additional benefits (including extended sick leave provisions) for work-related injuries. Other schemes may offer similar benefits. 

Go to see your doctor – and tell them about the work you do, your symptoms and that you suspect you might have RSI.

Unfortunately, not all doctors fully understand RSI.

If your doctor tells you it’s all in your mind or nothing to do with work don’t just accept this, ask to be referred to a specialist – or consider changing your doctor. 

Follow your doctor’s advice, especially if they say you need a period of rest from the work activities that could be causing your symptoms.

Claiming compensation

If your RSI is caused by work, there are two possible sources of compensation – industrial injury benefit and by suing your employer. 

Only certain RSls are covered by the industrial injury benefit scheme. You can find out about industrial injuries disablement benefit on Gov.uk 

PCS Legal Services Department can give advice about initiating a claim for damages. Costs for initial consultation with our solicitors are usually covered by PCS.

RSI dos and don'ts

  • do tell your PCS safety rep
  • do report your symptoms to your manager
  • do see your GP as soon as possible
  • do remember that some GPs are not well informed about RSI
  • don’t be fobbed off by the doctor – ask for another opinion if necessary
  • do follow any medical advice about rest or work changes
  • do remember that this might also mean resting from tasks at home that use the affected parts
  • don’t panic if you feel you have symptoms of RSI
  • don’t be rushed into taking major decisions such as giving up work
  • don’t risk aggravating the condition by ignoring early signs and symptoms or by continuing the tasks that might have caused it

Further information

Further information and resources on RSI can be found on the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work web site. 

UK-specific information on tackling upper limb disorders is available on the HSE web pages.

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