Policies for the prevention of repetitive strain injury (RSI) among computer users: a moral analysis

N Ben Fairweather

ETHICOMP Journal Vol 1 Issue 1


The increasing use of Information and Computer Technologies (ICTs) means that an ever-larger proportion of the world’s population is exposed to the possibility of repetitive strain injury (RSI) from computer use.

RSI is also known as occupational overuse injury and cumulative trauma disorder, and in some cases terms such as work-related upper limb disorders, tenosynovitis, thoracic outlet syndrome, and carpal tunnel syndrome are used.

This paper looks at a number of higher education and workplace RSI prevention policies, from countries including the United Kingdom, Australia, China and the United States, to morally evaluate them.

Evaluations take into account a variety of issues including the balance of corporate responsibility as against individual responsibility. In doing so, some of the broader issues of employer responsibility for health and safety are reviewed.

For a high proportion of policies studied, there is too much weight on individual responsibility. Many policies pay little or no attention to the context in which the computers are being used, putting unrealistic demands on individuals as a result.

Consideration is made of a variety of contexts in which ICTs are used. These include potentially problematic situations where due to work pressure it is difficult to take breaks. This is considered to be of particular importance because as ICTs spread to less industrialised countries, the high cost of the technology (relative to local incomes), increases the pressure to get maximum use from the equipment. The importance of line managers allowing, enabling, encouraging or enforcing suitable breaks (when all of these may be appropriate in some contexts), is generally not recognised in the policies studied.

One technically possible method for employers to take responsibility for the prevention of RSI is to electronically monitor keyboard use and other aspects of computer use. However, this gives rise to serious privacy concerns.

Another possible problem area is when the arrangements for access to ICTs (such as ‘open access’ or pre-booked workstations) preclude adequate breaks and proper ergonomic adjustment of the workstation for the individual user. Again this is of particular relevance when considering the spread of ICTs to less industrialised countries, as the high relative cost of them makes it likely that much access will be at shared workstations.

The paper also suggests that computer suppliers have a responsibility to supply relatively inexpensive software and equipment to prevent RSI with the computers they are supplying. Another suggestion is that suppliers should normally avoid shipping keyboards with built-in numeric keypads at the same time as right-handed mice – a combination that makes bad positioning while using the mouse almost inevitable.

While RSI is most closely associated with keyboard use, and there are suggestions that keyboard use might decline, there is also evidence that alternatives to keyboard use can cause RSI in some cases. If RSI is associated with technologies that can be expected to supplant keyboard use to some extent, the issues raised will be equally relevant when transferred to the new contexts.

The overall conclusion of the paper is that RSI is a very real problem, and will continue to be unless more widespread attention is paid to it. The control of RSI also requires that the attention paid to the problem involves a more realistic appraisal of the amount of responsibility individuals can be expected to bear.