Nothing New about Repetitive Motion Disorders

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Robert F. Bettendorf has no quarrel with the U.S. Department of Labor when it says that cases of repetitive motion disorders in the work place have greatly increased. But he contends that the problem is not an ominous byproduct of the computer age.

Bettendorf was director of video display terminal ergonomics in White Plains, N.Y., for IBM, a company understandably interested in studying a possible threat to its products and technology.

Upon his early retirement in 1989 he founded the Institute for Office Ergonomics, in Stamford, Conn., which is also his home.

He is now a consultant on ergonomics - the study of adapting jobs or work conditions to the worker.

A recent client was the chamber of commerce in San Francisco, which on Dec. 27 became the only city in the country to place into law regulations on the use of VDTs in the work place.

Other clients include insurance companies in New York and Connecticut, IBM itself and a computer maker in Silicon Valley in California.

``They hire me,'' he said, ``for a variety of reasons, ranging from `I read about the stuff and want to get ahead of it,' to `I have a specific problem and really need some help.' ''

The new San Francisco legislation, which has been praised by labor unions, is similiar to a law passed in Suffolk County, N.Y., in 1988.

That legislation was struck down in court on the ground that only the state had the right to pass such a law.

But because the San Francisco law is a result of negotiations between business and labor, the hope there is that it will not face a legal challenge.

Mayor Art Agnos of San Francisco, after meeting with labor and business leaders, signed a compromise bill giving employers with 15 or more workers four years to comply with requirements for ``state of the art'' keyboards, lighting, chairs, anti-glare screens and VDTs themselves, as well as with other rules dictating work breaks.

Agnos said the bill would ``insure that San Francisco workers are protected from painful injuries in a way that won't drive business out of the city.''

``It is an issue whose time has come,'' he added.

There are an estimated 40 million VDT users in the United States.

``I don't think the computer age brought a medical evil,'' Bettendorf said.

``Maybe in some cases it exacerbated the kinds of aches and pains we have as we go through life. But for the most part, they can be handled easily.''

He said that the rate of cumulative trauma disorders like carpal tunnel syndrome, which causes pain in the wrists and forearms, is ``probably less than 5 percent among computer operators'' and that about 95 percent of the ailments ``are such things as tennis elbow, sore arms or sore necks.''

``The computer age has increased the awareness and discomfort of the problem,'' Bettendorf said.

``The analogy is if you dig in a garden for eight hours, you're going to be sore. But you're not going to say, `Oh, my God, I have an injury. I need an operation.'''

Dr. Ralph N. Purcell, an orthopedic specialist, has another point of view.

``There would be a certain incidence with or without computers,'' he said. ``But I think the magnitude of the problem has been greatly intensified because of computers and terminal use.''

He also took exception to the gardening analogy because it suggested the over-zealous gardener could put aside further chores, a choice not available to the worker. ``Some people can't rest,'' he said. ``They have to go to their jobs and the problem spirals.''

Purcell is an attending orthopedic and hand surgeon at Phelps Memorial Hospital Center in North Tarrytown, N.Y.

He has a private practice in Tarrytown and is on the staff of the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan and the Helen Hayes Hospital in West Haverstraw. …