Everywhere we go these days we see people tapping away at their smartphone keyboard, whether sitting on the train, the bus, a car (whilst not driving of course), or even whilst walking down the street or through the shopping mall (have you seen the on-line clip http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jPW8xmI4w6U of the American lady falling in the water fountain whilst texting)? This rapid rise in the use of smartphones, whilst enabling us to stay in contact with work, friends and family, has been accompanied by a relatively new type of repetitive stress injury (RSI) termed “BlackBerry Thumb”.

Many users of popular wireless devices such as the BlackBerry type much faster by ‘pecking’ out messages with their thumbs rather than their more dexterous fingers. Many people soon learn to type in excess of 40 words a minute! “Whatever your thumb-typing speed, lots of messages mean lots of repetitive thumb motions. And that could mean trouble,” says Alan Hedge, PhD, director of the human factors and ergonomics research group at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

The muscles and tendons of the thumb are very strong, but they are not designed for the type of intense activity associated with today’s handheld devices. BlackBerry Thumb refers to the discomfort felt in the thumb, following prolonged use of a BlackBerry mobile device, smartphone or ipod. It is an irritation of the muscles and tendons at the base of the thumb which manifests itself as pain at the base of the thumb (which may continue even when the thumb in not being used) and an ache in the web space between the thumb and index finger. Over the long term excessive use can cause tendonitis and potentially lead to premature arthritis.

Since 1992, employers have had a legal obligation to provide DSE risk assessments for their staff, but many are unaware that the use of BlackBerry and Smartphone devices should be included within the risk assessment where use is habitual. If there is a risk from repetitive use of any item of DSE then it should be risk assessed, allowing for pro-active prevention of RSI rather than reactive measures to resolve it.

Every day, six people in the UK leave their jobs due to an RSI condition, and 1 in 50 of all workers in the UK has reported an RSI condition of some sort. However, BlackBerry Thumb needn’t be an inevitable consequence of today’s fast-paced world. Simple control measures can prevent the realisation of BlackBerry Thumb, including restricting the usage of a BlackBerry to, for example, no more than 2 short emails in any one hour period. Encourage staff to do more typing on their keyboard and then to sync over to their BlackBerry rather than typing longer messages on BlackBerry itself. And, where this is not possible, consider supplying staff with a full-size wireless compact folding keyboard which are available for most handheld devices for around £60.

As BlackBerrys and Smartphones continue to become a vital tool to many employers, make sure you make your staff aware of the pitfalls.

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