If I said to you “peritendinitis” or “tenosynovitis”, you’d probably be forgiven for thinking I was recalling the names of long-extinct dinosaurs. And “carpel tunnel syndrome” is not, as some may imagine, the latest Bourne thriller.
Crippling work practices
All three are in fact repetitive strain injuries. Conditions that, as the generic term suggests, come about from doing something. Again, and again, And again. And again. Again. Again, again, again.
It seems utterly bizarre, unbelievable now, in a time of laptops, hi-tech graphics, ergonomic chairs as standard, and increasingly flexible working environments that working at a keyboard linked to a display screen could – and did – literally cripple workers. And employers denied all liability for that.
In the late 1980s and into the 90s it was commonplace for an element of pay to be linked to proficiency. Nothing new in that then or now. Except this proficiency was how many keystrokes you made in a given period of time. More keystrokes, more dosh. Too few begged questions about your suitability for the role.
Remember – Again and again, And again. And again. Again. Again, again, again. It’s not the task that is necessarily dangerous, but how it has to be done.
“It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it….”
This “how” is not just “how often” but how the flow of work is regulated, the working environment, the kit you have to use.
Data entry/processing workers were in a triple lock here. Pay was incentivised by keystrokes, rest-breaks were dictated by factory-age thinking and office furniture had not been designed with this sort of work regime in mind.
Now imagine. You are sat in a chair. You can’t adjust the height. It may or may not have armrests, and if it has, you can’t adjust those either. On the desk is the keyboard and screen. The display isn’t that clear, and you can make it only marginally brighter or darker. And there’s nothing you can do at all about the glare and reflection. There may or may not be room for a footrest. The footwell may be cluttered with boxes. Right from the off, you can feel the stress across your shoulders, down your arms, through your wrists and fingers. You’d love to just get up and stretch your legs, your back. But that’s not on.
The pain is real
When it comes, the pain is real. At first you think it isn’t, that it’s you, that it’s just one of those passing things. But soon the pain comes quicker and takes longer to fade. And ultimately, in some cases, it doesn’t fade at all. Headaches from the glare, weakness of grip and loss of strength, a shooting sensation in your lower arms.
And possibly too late you find it’s not just you and it’s not a weakness in you but fundamentally unsafe working conditions.
The employer won’t wear it. Possibly in the knowledge that admission of liability will open legal floodgates. We gradually go from stage to stage, exhausting dialogue with the firm, lodging cases in court, trying to avoid prolonging this for any longer than is necessary. In parallel, cases on behalf of workers in banking and journalism are also running.
Victory in court
So on a December morning outside the City of London County Court we are waiting for the judgement. There’s a media scrum outside and I’m with our members trying to decipher the legalese. It’s in our favour, but the damages are awarded are modest – a few thousand to each. Scant compensation for the pain and loss of income.
And in the same way that today we can see but not be absolutely sure about greater automation, so it was the case with computerisation then. We knew that however bad the situation was at that point in time, it would get worse in direct proportion to the spread of computers as an integral work tool. So we needed to secure permanent and enduring changes in order to prevent further pain, suffering, sick leave and court cases. It just took a bloody long time and left people in and at risk of chronic pain. Just for coming to work and doing their job.
Unions at the heart of the matter
The whole point of the cases of Denise Lodge and Angela McSherry, and their colleagues UK was that the interaction between people and technology, it wasn’t working. The balance was wrong. Workers were getting hurt and their unions (and the courts) obliged firms to respond.
And the whole point of trade unions in this scenario is that we were – and are – the collective vehicle to support those legal challenges and change the law. Because individuals simply can’t do it on their own. It is at the heart of what unions do.
Access this and all episodes at bit.ly/UnionDays
The case of McSherry and lodge v British Telecommunications was reported in The Independent and The Times of 17 December 1991.
A review of Computer technology, occupational health and the law in the late 1980s and early 1990s can be found in this paper from Johnson and Montanheiro