Overuse injuries in Library staff

To all those library folks who took the time and effort (and in some cases doing it in pain too!) I thank you most sincerely for your letters. I am beginning to get a clearer picture of the types of occupational overuse injuries which have been sustained by fellow library workers and if nothing else we are now more aware that our jobs can be hazardous to our health. I guess there is a lesson to be learnt here and it is up to each and every one of us who has suffered an occupational overuse injury or who is currently suffering an injury to make our workplaces safer for everyone. It is much too late to turn back the clock once a permanent injury has occurred and although I too have heard the standard excuse – “the budget won’t allow the purchase of that equipment etc. etc.” remember that your health is so very important and sometimes it is worth the effort to have a much better quality of life both within and outside the working environment. A brief summary of some of the many responses I received are as follows:

I suffered from RSI in my right wrist in 1984, due to doing too much date-due stamping in books being loaned. In my experience supervisors don’t want to know about RSI, and staffs suffering from it either don’t complain, or blame other things for their pain (“I’m getting old ” etc). People are hesitant about admitting to suffering from RSI/OOS, in case it reflects on them later in their careers. That reason influenced my decision to write to you personally rather than air my views to the rest of the readers on the list. I think we sit for long periods of time at terminals, lift heavy objects or do very repetitive tasks all day and on top of that are under pressure to do them within a very short time frame. All this adds up to injuries. It has been rife through this library for a long time; it was particularly bad when I joined in 1989. Management has been very supportive of different methods to try to keep staff in good health, and in trying to ensure that there are a variety of tasks – very difficult with library work.
Some of the supports include:

  • 10minute breaks before morning & afternoon tea, where technical services staff members are encouraged to leave terminals and practice a form of tai-chi. (one of the staff members is proficient, and lead the group;
  • A new innovation, is that a masseur arranges to visit the library on a regular basis (I think fortnightly). Staff can have head & shoulder massages; staffs members use flex time and pay the fee, but as you can imagine, as it is done on a group basis & travelling time does not need to be included, it has been quite popular.

In my section, Loans, two fulltime staff and one part time staff have/had RSI. We have 8 fulltime and 4 part time staff. One of the full time staff was a ‘typist’ but the other 2 seem to have been affected by book handling. I am working as a library technician now, in a special library so the shelving is not that demanding. About 1/2 hour every day. I am finding thought that my right arm and wrist are giving me trouble due to using a mouse. I find that I can’t use the mouse unless my whole arm is resting on the desk. I myself suffered an injury while working in a university library and before the area was radically changed many more colleagues were injured after me. Incidentally I was the 8th person to suffer an injury from the area, altogether 12 staff reported and suffered quite severe problems from the area. Management finally listened but at what cost!!!!

I am currently off work having been diagnosed as suffering from what is colloquially termed ‘frozen shoulder’ due to occupational overuse. My duties chiefly involved keyboarding (entering and receiving orders), writing up invoice books, filing, stamping and tattling, unpacking boxes and carrying books. All these activities entailed continuous and repetitive activities using the same muscles and actions. I reached a point where I was in constant pain, and needed to use anti-inflammatory drugs to control it. We have a number of cases in our library of staff, techs and shelvers, suffering from various forms of OOS.

I developed RSI in both wrists & forearms within my first year here, was responsible for all mending and end processing. Now, it flares up whenever I push to keep up. I work at UWA library (for 18 yrs) and have had diagnosed OOS (tenosynovitis) since 4/95.It is in the wrist but at the worst stage went right up the arm to the shoulder. I have had mild pains in my hands must of this year. I am trying to reduce my keyboard activities. Mostly my problem originated from the mouse. I am now trying to get DragonDictate working for myself but it’s a long and winding road. The new “automated library” is an RSI nightmare. The description from “Office Politics” of the office of the future where underpaid women are trapped doing repetitious tasks is a pretty good description of our work force here. In addition to the pervasiveness of computers here, there are other things that can hurt us, especially if we’re already injured. Among them:

  • card catalogs. Even w/computers, many of libraries still have them. Flipping through them can hurt (a lot), as can picking them up to move them to a more appropriate level for tired sore neck muscles.
  • picking up books, moving them around, especially at the circulation desk. More especially if you have to “desensitize” them so alarms won’t go off when the patrons walk out the door.
  • moving book trucks around. That can be somewhat minimized by having good ones in good repair, although it can still be hard to roll them, esp. over carpet.

In addition to all the computer work librarians and library technicians have to do, other things that can cause problems are photocopying (lots of manipulation of large books), pulling books off shelves–especially high ones, working the microfilm readers that have manual windups, holding the telephone to your ear with shoulder while trying to look something up on computer or book. I work in a small technical library where the other librarian and I do everything from reference to circulation. But (and don’t laugh!) you must count extremely dry, cracked skin as a library-related injury. Dealing with paper on a constant basis every day sucks the oils right out of your skin, and I have had, and know many others who have, such dried out skin on their hands that big raw cracks develop on fingers and around cuticles. These nasty things are difficult to heal and VERY painful.

My coworker and I have been experienced carpal tunnel, tendonitis type symptoms. We started having problems after we got NOTIS, a very archaic, key-stroke intensive catalog system. Also, manipulating the mouse can cause stress points. Then you add to those poor air quality problems in our sick building, and it makes you wonder why you stay in a job–possibly the paycheck and liking library work are two factors that keep us. I am in the midst of occupational therapy for overuse injuries for the third time. Hope this helps all you overworked library staff to think about the work you do and how you do it. If you have or currently are suffering from RSI/OOS you are not alone. If you haven’t had any problems to date, please listen to those of us who have been injured in this occupation and learn from our mistakes. Thank you once again to all those people who took the time to reply to my query and I wish you all well.


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