Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) is crippling digital designers. But in an industry where time equals money, what can be done, and what should designers be doing to minimise the risk?
Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) is an umbrella term for a range of musculoskeletal conditions derived from occupational over use, but it's most commonly used to describe the conditions of carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis that affect the hands, wrists and arms.
RSI is potentially crippling, and can affect anyone who regularly performs repetitive tasks. It is common among musicians, athletes and manual workers, but computer users are by far the biggest single group, accounting for up to 40 per cent of all RSI-related conditions.
Within this group, digital designers are at particular risk, working long, often unregulated hours and regularly performing repetitive tasks. Digital video artist Chris Kenworthy first suffered from RSI after working on one lengthy project: "It came after a run of three months working eight to 12 hours a day at the machine," he says. "The result was not just pain, but eventually paralysis. My arm froze one morning and I didn't get it moving again for days. After that, I could barely work, and gradually started to pull back on the hours I spent at the computer."
This is a problem that's reaching epidemic proportions. During 2001 and 2002, about 448,000 people in Great Britain suffered from RSI caused or made worse by work. As a result, an estimated 4.7 million working days were lost.
What's being done?
So, what's being done to prevent designers developing RSI? Well, if you work in an office, the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 lay down strict guidelines on the working environment for office workers. Employers are required to "analyse workstations and assess and reduce risks," and must also "ensure workstations meet minimum requirements". The regulations also dictate that employers should "plan work so that there are breaks or changes of activity". With these guidelines in place, most modern offices in the UK should provide a comfortable, ergonomic working environment for their employees by law. But guidelines such as these are difficult to enforce and many freelance designers fall outside this safety net.
"In graphic design, the mouse is used in a repetitive way and that's the main cause of the problems," says Paul Goddard, marketing manager of ergonomic office equipment reseller Keytools. "We usually advise two or three different widgets. Designers should learn to use both hands and mix up different devices. For example, they should try to use a tablet for cut-outs and a mouse for menu commands.
"There are simple things you can do to make your workstation more ergonomic, too. I'd recommend a monitor stand to keep your display at eye level and a document platform so you don't have to keep looking down when copying up notes or sketches." Certainly, working on an ergonomic workstation helps, but the cause of injury is the level of repetition, and the biggest problem is that we're all working harder than ever before. According to TUC statistics, a fifth of UK employees work more than 48 hours a week and graphic designers often work even longer.
"Not only are we working longer, but we are also producing a huge volume of work," says Kevin Fleisch, chairman of the Central London RSI Support Group. "In terms of written work, the world now produces an amount of work equal to every document produced in history prior to 1939 each day."
Is necessity the killer?
When time is money, many designers argue that the hours spent at the computer are a necessary evil. But are we using our time in a smart way? One of the major problems with modern design tools is the ability to undo our actions, which means our creativity comes through a degree of trial and error. While an illustrator or designer would previously sit and think between each brush stroke and sketch, we tend to do all our thinking on screen.
"I know what it's like, when you're in a creative mood you just want to get on with it," agrees Fleisch. "But we all need to take time out to stare and reflect."
It's easy to lose track of time when you're working. "As a professional illustrator, you get to know all the keyboard shortcuts, and when you get into something time flies by. Before you know it, three hours have gone," says illustrator Serge Seidlitz. We're also spending more time using our fingers and thumbs for such things as gaming and texting. "I can't stand text messaging and emailing people any more," confides Seidlitz. "My biggest worry as an illustrator is losing the use of my hands."
One of the tools Paul Goddard suggests is RSIguard, an application that helps prevent computer users from inflicting injury by providing reminders to take a break. "If your livelihood involves working at a computer all day, then you need to take it seriously," he exhorts. "You can work eight to ten hours a day, but you must be prepared to pay the price."