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Taking Repetitive Strain Injury Seriously

Guest Column Geoffrey J. Coram

RSI - as MIT students we've all heard the acronym. Given how much we use our computers, we all probably even know someone who has a repetitive strain injury from typing or clicking too much. If I had sent this to you as an e-mail message, you might have been massaging your wrists as you read it. But too many administrators at MIT seem to be pretending RSI doesn't exist among students.

A professor in my department brought up the problem of RSI a few months ago, and the more I learned about it, the more irritated I became. He suggested that I, as president of the Graduate Student Council, do something to improve the working conditions for graduate students. In particular, almost everyone in my lab has their computer on an old Steelcase desk - good and sturdy, but not ergonomic at all. Even the Media Lab, breeding-ground for all sorts of cool computer technology, is still stuck (for the most part) with standard keyboards.

Last year MIT Medical reported 668 RSI-related visits, 63 percent of which were by students. It is obvious that MIT students, especially those in computer-intensive disciplines, are a high-risk group for RSI. Professor Paul L. Penfield, Jr. '60, head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, even sends out a letter to all new faculty and graduate students, as well as students in 6.001, warning of RSI's dangers. That is a good first step that other departments should follow, but it focuses on recognizing RSI after it starts. MIT should be more concerned about preventing RSI before the symptoms appear.

MIT has a very responsible attitude towards RSI for employees. Despite court rulings that downplay RSI as a disability, MIT's Industrial Hygiene office will perform workstation evaluations to help prevent or reduce RSI. Students can have their work areas evaluated, as well, but this fact is not well known among graduate students. Staff supervisors understand their responsibilities towards employees, but this is not always the case for research supervisors.

The advisor clearly has supervisory powers and should have some responsibility, but some professors refuse to acknowledge RSI. In these cases there is no established procedure for obtaining proper accommodations. There is a whole chain of "passing the buck": furniture cannot be charged directly to research grants, because typically furniture outlives the grant period. And MIT officials won't let better furniture be charged to overhead, mumbling something about how we already have furniture.

Based on an e-mail I received from an assistant to the provost (who controls most of the money, in the end), I can basically summarize the procedure as follows: a student feels that he or she should get an ergonomic workstation because of the amount of computer work he or she does. The student asks his advisor to buy a desk. If the advisor has discretionary funds to spare, she buys the desk. If not, the student goes to the department. Same story: if there's money, great; otherwise, it goes up the totem pole to the provost's office. And here it ends: if none of these sources have money, too bad.

All this takes place before the problem starts. Once you've got RSI, MIT will pay for it. And presently, it must cost them less to deal with the accommodations. I imagine a lot of students don't know about the resources to help them out, so they tough it out for the last few months of their thesis work and then leave MIT. The Institute saves money by ignoring the problem: once you graduate, you're no longer MIT's problem.

The RSI task force has started to address these problems. The task force is an ad-hoc group of people who got together because they realized that RSI is a big problem. The members are aware that students are an at-risk group. Isn't is curious that MIT has a swimming requirement, the group notes, but no institutional awareness of RSI? In which way is an MIT student more likely to be injured, falling in the Charles or typing too much on a computer?

I have some ideas of a few simple things MIT could do. The campus police gave out mousepads one year at orientation. Instead, they could get their logo and number printed on wrist rests. You get free mousepads from all sorts of places; wrist rests should be just as common. Or maybe Athena should put wrist rests in all its clusters, printed with special hints on how to avoid RSI. I realize that wrist rests aren't the solution to everyone's problem, but they would convey an important message: MIT realizes that RSI can be a problem, and any that time you sit at a computer, you should be thinking about ergonomics.

A universal procedure should be established under which professors can charge new furniture or ergonomic improvements (such as keyboard trays) to the same grant that pays for the computer - perhaps only one of three students on the project gets a new desk in a given year, but after a couple years, they all have a reasonable desk for computing.

Athena should set up timers on the workstations, similar to those on the Quickstations that force you to log out; these timers should force you to take a break if you have been typing continuously for too long. Information Systems already provides the option of running such timers on the computers of their help desk consultants.

More importantly, MIT should change its attitude towards RSI among students: The focus should be on prevention. Responsibility should be clearly assigned, and students should be made aware of the resources that are available to them.

MIT needs to act now. Computer use is not decreasing, and neither will the number of incidences of repetitive strain injuries.

Geoffrey J. Coram is the president of the Graduate Student Council. He is a graduate student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.