Osteoarthritis and Office Ergonomics


Business man with RSI

According to the Arthritis Foundation’s website, osteoarthritis (OA) affects approximately 27 million Americans.  Repetitive motion injury is noted as a cause of OA.  In 2007, Rueben Escorpizo and colleagues reported in the Journal of Rheumatology that “arthritis is a leading cause of work disability and makes up a significant amount of the socioeconomic cost and health burden to the working age population” [34(6):1372-1380, 2007].

Among office workers the increased use of tablet and handheld computers is resulting in increased hand and wrist strain, and consequent carpal tunnel syndrome (while hand OA likewise predisposes to carpal tunnel syndrome).  According to the Arthritis Society, of the 27 million adults with OA, the CDC’s National Arthritis Data Working Group report 13 million adults with symptomatic hand osteoarthritis.

While computer ergonomics has largely focused on proper keyboard placement and posture at desktop PCs, the use of notebook computers is changing the office workplace landscape.   Ergonomic informational brochures usually presume the use of a separate keyboard and mouse, while desks has not changed to accommodate notebook and smaller-sized computers.  Therefore, office workers are unaware of correct wrist and hand positioning to ergonomically utilize notebook and tablet computers.  While it may seem to employers that solely providing notebook computers may be economically preferable for a more mobile staff, wrist and hand stress at desktop computers can be better controlled because desks and chairs can be more easily adjusted to meet ergonomic requirements.

A New York Times article entitled, “Epidemic at the Computer: Hand and Arm Injuries” (March 1992) quoted:

“‘States report that 30 to 40 percent of workman’s compensation claims now result from musculoskeletal disorders,’ said Dr. Roger Stephens, director of the Office of Ergonomics at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in Washington”.

In this New York Times article, four factors presented by Dr. Dainoff as increasing the risk for hand-wrist disorders are:

  • High rates of repetition of the same action;
  • Awkward or unnatural posture while working;
  • Use of excessive force while working; and
  • Lack of adequate rest periods or recovery time.

The cost-savings perceived by employers purchasing notebook and small-sized computers for their staff instead of desktop computers thereby may be offset by injury and lost productivity—not to mention health insurance claims.

In a 2012 article in Rheumatology entitled, “Tension at the borders: perceptions of role overload, conflict, strain and facilitation in work, family and health roles among employed individuals with arthritis” [51(2):324-332]), Monique Gignac et al reported that workers with arthritis in their study experienced a lack of enough time to complete tasks resulting in role overload and fatigue—and negatively impacting productivity as well as difficulty managing the arthritis.

Kenneth Tang et al, in a 2011 article entitled, “Measuring the impact of arthritis on worker productivity: perspectives, methodologic issues, and contextual factors”, [J Rheumatol 38(8): 1776-1790] suggested that the importance of receiving job accommodations may be diminished if a worker has a job with highly flexible work schedule and receives strong support from co-workers.

Whatever manner is utilized to prevent the onset of carpal tunnel syndrome and osteoarthritis—whether ergonomic or a change in work attributes—the cost-savings benefit will be preferable to dealing with compensation claims and injured office workers unable to perform their roles.  If you would like more information, or assistance with your ergonomics program, please contact us today.