Carnegie Mellon Starts Comprehensive Education Program
Relating To Repetitive Stress Injuries (RSI) From Computer Use

(Pittsburgh) With debilitating injuries from computer use becoming the fastest growing category of work-related injuries in the U.S., Carnegie Mellon University is creating the first accurate, comprehensive effort to educate its community and the public about the causes and possible prevention of repetitive stress injuries (RSI).

Carnegie Mellon's program is the first one created by a leading academic institution to be targeted at the growing problem of RSI and it includes workshops for staff and faculty, as well as an awareness and education program to inform students about repetitive stress injuries.

This program is, in part, a follow-up to a recent study by a group of Carnegie Mellon faculty and students that documented the widespread impact of RSI, often linked with intensive typing at computers. Symptoms of RSI can include tingling or numbness in the hands, an aching neck and shoulders, and wrist pain.

According to the Carnegie Mellon report that looked at RSI nationwide, many major U.S. companies experienced increases in RSI-related complaints. A 1994 study of corporate risk managers showed that RSI complaints jumped from 16th to fourth on their list of growing problems in the workplace. Many of the most severe cases, involving carpal tunnel surgery, now cost the U.S. approximately $2 billion annually in health care costs.

This past fall, a Carnegie Mellon task force suggested RSI prevention methods that are now being widely integrated into employee and student training, equipment purchasing decisions, and into Carnegie Mellon's computer clusters, where 85 percent of students spend several hours a day working or recreating.

The preventive methods identified by Carnegie Mellon could also be effective in other workplaces, where some 70 million people now spend part of their day typing at a computer keyboard.

The task force was chaired by Engineering and Public Policy professors Baruch Fischhoff, an expert in risk analysis and a founding member of the National Research Council's Committee on Human Factors, and Edward Rubin, who is also on the Mechanical Engineering faculty. Fischhoff has a joint appointment in the Social and Decision Sciences.

"Carnegie Mellon is widely known as a pioneer in computer science and engineering," Rubin said. "Now we want to show similar leadership in dealing with the problems of computer use posed by repetitive stress injury."

"We are trying to help our students develop work habits that will keep them healthy through careers that are likely to involve intensive computer use," Fischhoff said. "We want all members of our community to know about the risks of computer use, and the university's commitment to helping its community understand the hazards of RSI.

"In its work, the task force has looked hard at the research literature on the effectiveness of ergonomic measures in order to identify those promising to achieve the greatest impact at the least cost. As a result, the task force has a program that could be readily implemented, within the economic constraints of any university, or other organization, with the needed administrative support and awareness," Fischhoff added.

Rubin reported that Carnegie Mellon's commitment to addressing the problem of RSI is substantial and that it has the strong "top-down" support of university President Robert Mehrabian, Provost Paul Christiano, deans and other university officers, as well as the "bottom-up" support of students, faculty and staff.

"Our hope is that the Carnegie Mellon program will become a model for other universities and organizations who face similar issues," Rubin said.

Christiano affirmed the university's commitment to the new RSI prevention program. "The well-being of our students, staff and faculty is always our paramount concern," Christiano said. "This initiative will go a long way to ensure that we maintain a healthful and productive environment for all of the people on this campus."

Carnegie Mellon's own survey of health problems associated with RSI showed the problem was widespread, with more than 22 percent of graduate students, faculty and staff who responded to the survey reported suffering from some RSI symp- toms. These findings mirrored results for other computer-intensive environments, such as newspaper offices and data or word processing operations.

This is the first known survey of RSI prevalence on a college campus. The survey form used by Carnegie Mellon researchers can also be used by other organizations to assess the extent of their problem, researchers said.

Carnegie Mellon's program includes the following major elements:

  • RSI Task Force. A committee of university faculty, staff and administrators was responsible for planning, coordinating and managing all prevention and response activities and will continue to study the issue.

  • Information Resources. The RSI Task Force has assembled up-to-date inform- ation on RSI awareness and response focused at a variety of audiences. Over the next several months, these materials will be translated into an informative bro- chure, a poster directed at students, a detailed project report that already is available and a World Wide Web site that includes free "break" reminder software for computer users.

  • Computer Skills for Students. All undergraduates will receive education in RSI awareness and prevention methods as part of their first-year program. A module also will be developed for a self paced, on-line version of a computer skills course.

  • Employee Orientation. New employees receive information on RSI awareness and prevention as part of their regular orientation to Carnegie Mellon.

  • Equipment Purchasing Guidelines. A "what to look for" guide to purchasing the kinds of chairs and other workstation equipment important for RSI prevention has been created. It includes lists of preferred vendors and manufacturers, plus links to on-campus experts on workstation equipment purchasing.

  • Campus Outreach. The university has developed a broad program of information dissemination, directed at creating awareness among students, staff and faculty. It includes: a network of administrative contacts in each college or major unit of the campus; dissemination of brochures, posters and software; purchasing guidelines; and other materials, including articles in campus publications.

  • Student Health Services. Professionals are trained in dealing with RSI treatment and prevention. This service provides links to off-campus specialists on RSI treatment who are involved in on campus prevention programs.

  • Workstation Evaluations. The university's ergonomic specialist conducts individual workstation evaluations in response to requests from staff, faculty or students.

  • Special Events. Periodic events will be planned to call attention to RSI prevention and response. The first event, scheduled for this winter, is a campus-wide compe- tition to develop new software to remind users to take periodic breaks from typing.

Information about Carnegie Mellon's program and corollary materials can be obtained by writing to:

Office of Public Relations
Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh, PA 15213