Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) can arise in a lot of work environments whenever there is a combination of often-repeated activity, long hours and stress. Industrial processes, factory farming and other intensive environments are prone to some of the many different manifestations of RSI. The computerisation of workplace environments, beginning in the 1970s, generated a fresh set of problems in working areas that had hitherto been free of them. And as people begin to suffer, they often face a dilemma between telling the employer, and potentially putting their job at risk, or carrying on and making the problem worse.
Employers, of course, have legal obligations, but if you are part of a casualized workforce it may be harder to make sure that these are properly met. On the RT listings desk in 1991, hardly any sub is on a permanent contract. As employees, we therefore feel vulnerable. As an employer at that time, BBC Magazines is hyper-sensitive to the occurrence of RSI.
So when I start feeling pain, I become very worried. I think about the colleague I was working with early on – her hands bandaged and periodically bathed in ice during the working day.. I have to say in retrospect that I have no idea whether my symptoms fall into any classic diagnosis. What I can say is that RT immediately takes them very seriously. These are my symptoms. I start having an aching pain that follows a path on each hand from the tip of my index finger to the tip of my thumb whenever I type, sometimes accompanied by a sharper pain running from my wrist to the tip of my arm. As well as that pain, which occurs whenever I type, anything involving torque (rotational pressure) such as turning a doorknob, is now painful.
I think I spend a day or so trying to decide what to do. I only have two or three months left on my contact so I feel very vulnerable. I am also, of course, worried about long-term damage, and as other colleagues are also succumbing the whole desk is hyper-anxious about things. Workload has subsided a bit from the horrible first week of deregulation, but things are still very busy. In the end I decide not to risk worsening my health further, so I go and talk to Roger Hughes.
I am taken off VDU work immediately, and in short order seen by the BBC doctor. As with similarly affected colleagues, I am given paper-based editing tasks. While this eases the physical strain it is a slower, more tedious way of working, and then someone else has to input your copy and typesetting marks, so this effectively puts more strain on our remaining healthy colleagues. I worry about how significant, and how long-term, the damage is, but I have no doubt that stopping, rather than soldiering on, was the right thing to do.
Reluctantly, I begin to think about trying to find a job elsewhere. It’s a wrench – I have big plans for me and the BBC. Unrealistic and grandiose plans to be sure, but just the fact that I have finally found myself working for the Corporation has meant a lot to me, so it is depressing that I find myself facing possible health issues as a result.
I scour the Guardian newspaper’s media section on a Monday, which in those days is full of job ads. Before too long I find a communications and marketing vacancy at the Polytechnic of Norfh London (PNL). Based on the ad, I seem to have the right skills. As always in those days, I don’t deliberate very much about whether or not what I am contemplating is a good career move, except that it is still a journalism-oriented post. I don’t know much about PNL itself, but send off my application.
After a few weeks away from typing, I start to feel better. I get reassessed by the doctor, and get the OK to go back onto keyboard work, which I do … cautiously. Although I never suffer the same symptoms typing (I am much more cautious these days, good posture, screen breaks etc etc – please do the same, anyone reading this), for years if I do certain kinds of physical work such as big Do-It-Yourself jobs around the house, the pain returns. My natural antipathy towards DIY helps here, and I am happy to report that it is many years since I have felt those original symptoms.
At about the same time as I go back to the VDU I receive an invitation to interview at PNL. I traipse down in my one and only suit, and am interviewed by a panel including the current Head of Communications and Marketing, Miranda Bell. I give good interview, and get offered the post. If I take it, the hazard of a short-term contract is removed. I decide to accept the job and return to working in the University sector, little realizing the colossal career-changing consequences of doing so.
When I share the news with one of my colleagues, he suggests that I will have my work cut out for me, because PNL is the location of the Patrick Harrington case. Although I remember the case, I had not realized PNL was the institution involved, so even before I start I worry whether I have made the right decision. It turns out that the shadow of the case does loom, but not as largely as I worry it might. On the other hand, in order to get proper leaving paperwork from BBC Magazines, I am asked to sign a piece of paper basically saying that I will never make any medical or compensatory claims against the BBC, even though my RSI occurred while in their employ. I am appalled by this behaviour, but feel like I have little choice. Luckily, by stopping work soon after I had symptoms, I seem to have avoided significant injury, but I can’t be sure everyone forced to sign a piece of paper like that was in the same position.
Ironically, the listings desk give me a very nice farewell mini-party and I feel sad to be leaving my sub-editing chums. Party and paperwork of course contrast in my mind, and I am disappointed that my media career ambitions (daft though they probably are) are on hold. Little do I know the interesting twists and turns my career then takes in the following years …