Repetitive strain injury

I met Rudi at a meeting organised by the Union of Postal Clerks and Telegraphists. The meeting was an information meeting for members who had suffered from RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury). Rudi came to Australia from an Eastern European country. He could not speak English. He was a refugee and he had no money. He obtained work as a mail sorter. He now has RSI.


Repetitive Strain Injury, RSI, is a common name for a number of injuries caused by repeated motion. Tendonitis, Tennis Elbow, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, and Tenosynovitis are all examples of RSI. Many times we read in the papers and hear on the media that it is only a psychological disease or even a bludgers disease. I was at the meeting together with two YCW members to learn a little more about it. Mail sorting is done using a number of processes. Firstly it is sorted into regions then into post offices and then into batches for individual postal workers. It is an industry that like so many others is slowly being taken over by technology. Most of us for example can remember the introduction of postcodes.

The sorting frame that has been in use and is still in use in many places is nothing more than a series of boxes. The sorter stands in front of this and takes individual letters and puts them into their right boxes. This means many movements of lifting and stretching in many directions. Of course this is not heavy work, but it is repetitive, boring and a strain on arm muscles.

In the 1960’s Australia Post, in an effort to increase efficiency centralised the sorting process in New South Wales at Redfern. This had many advantages as regards efficiency. A mis-sorted article needed only to be sent to another part of the same building to be correctly sorted. This of course is much quicker than if the same article is sent by mistake to a post office 100 kilometres away and has then to be returned. This disadvantaged workers. Instead of working in the local Post Office, they had to travel each day to Redfern. The centralising of the sorting process had another effect. With so many people working in the same building it was much easier to organise the workers with the result that the union became more active and efficient and industrial action in the form of demands and strikes became more prevalent.

Australia Post has responded to this by once again decentralising the sorting process. Workers once again can work in their local area. But the local post offices have more old-fashioned apparatus, the pressure has increased, and the result has been an increasing number of cases of RSI.

Responding to the Problem

In 1977 the union noticed cases of RSI in Blackburn postal workers. They did not know that it was RSI but reported to Australia Post that there was a problem with workers suffering pain. Australia Post responded saying that there was no problem. The union alleges that it has since discovered that Australia Post knew that it was RSI but were trying to hide it. This has become an important factor in union legal work to prove negligence of Australia Post in not preventing injury to their workers.

A crowded meeting sat in anxious silence while a lawyer spoke on the legal aspects. Employees of the Commonwealth Government, we were told, have a unique system of injury compensation. Any injuries, which can be proven medically to be caused by or contributed by situations at work can gain injury compensation. A person rendered incapable of work can get full wages for the first six months, but after that time wage compensation is drastically reduced.

This compensation scheme is therefore similar to an accident insurance policy and it makes living very difficult for people like Rudi who has been off work for nearly 15 months now. But what if the employer is culpable? What if the injury comes because of culpable negligence on the employer’s part? A person so injured, we were told can sue the employer. A jury will judge the case and if successful award a compensation worked out by taking into account the past and future economic losses caused by the injury plus a payment to compensate for past and future pain. The lawyer told us that fulfilling the prescribed processes for preparing such a suit by both employer and employees lawyers will take about 12 months The case is then put on the waiting list to be heard.

In Victoria at the moment the waiting time for a prepared case is about 18 months. So in something like three years after the injury a worker might expect the case to be heard. The lawyer told us that his firm at the present had more than 2000 cases of RSI on their books. The consequences of this waiting period will be obvious to any one who thinks about it. The injured person suffers financial hardship, worry, pain, loss of employment and the indignity that that brings, and physical hardship in coping with the ordinary tasks of living. The effects of these things on their families are obvious.

The union chairperson then introduced us to a man who represented a church and trade union committee. He told us of the efforts being made to acquire premises and personnel to set up a support group for RSI sufferers. The aim of this group are to provide information and communication links between injured people and their union, to provide mental financial and morale support, and to disseminate information on treatment methods and ways of physically coping with their disabilities. The union meanwhile is continuing the struggle to ensure the provision of ergonomically safe working conditions and job rotation plans for people at work. It was pleasing for us to find out that the union person chairing the meeting. A member of the committee setting up the support group, and a lawyer from the legal firm advising the union and committed to working for workers in industrial cases were all ex-members of the YCW and proud of it.

The Vision and Method of the YCW

Perhaps more than thousands of words could this story spells out the vision method and achievement of the YCW. While other church groups aim at spiritual formation charitable works, theological and liturgical competence, and teaching methods of prayer, the YCW aims at a life long commitment in the secular vocation of lay people in their lay life. YCW groups meet weekly in parishes around Australia and around the world. They are encouraged to share stories of the things they have seen in their daily life at home at work and at leisure. Slowly this raises awareness in YCW’s of the things that are affecting them for good and bad. The group analyses these things. What are the causes? What are the consequences? Analysis of young worker reality evolves. The group then challenges one another to evaluate what is happening. What do we think of this? What should be happening? What does our faith, our understanding of what Christ would think or do in this situation say about this?

Taking Charge of Our Lives

The aim is not a moralistic judgement but an understanding of the fact that the world of everyday things is the world where a young worker lives the Christian life – that the building and development of the world is the young worker’s vocation. Then the group decides on action – action for change – action to build a better world. The awareness of the reality of our lives, the spirit of continually questioning the things that are happening about us, and the sense of mission in our world, of being responsible for our world. The awareness of taking charge in our lives and not just letting things happen to us is a formation in the apostolate of the laity that remains with all of our lives.

Hugh O’Sullivan

[Date unknown, Venue unknown]

Reference: 011-310399

Version 1.0, 14 May 1999