Repetitive Motion: New Job Ailment

February 16, 1990

Report Outline
Special Focus

Introduction

In the 1980s, there was a dramatic increase in a specific kind of job-related disability: repetitive-motion injuries. Employees in a wide range of industries, from meatpacking to data processing, reported suffering debilitating pain and discomfort. Some employers find it difficult to accept that their employees' complaints are work-related. But most recognize that it is in their best interests to improve work conditions and eliminate factors that contribute to cumulative trauma disorders.

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Overview

Pat Thompson was a checker at a Pathmark supermarket in the Philadelphia area when computerized cash registers and laser scanners were introduced in the early 1980s. The switch to the new technology meant the checkers had to alter the way they did their jobs. No longer could they simply push the grocery items off a conveyer belt and down to the end of the counter. Now they had to move the items in such a way that the Universal Product Code would line up with the scanner. “It was a swimming motion …,” Thompson recalled, “[that required] twisting our wrists to scan the items.”

The productivity of each cashier was measured daily, and the results were posted for all to see. “We were all encouraged to scan … as fast as we could,” Thompson told a House subcommittee last June. The most productive checkers were rewarded with gold badges and the chance to work at “bag your own” checkout counters. Checkers who maintained their high level of productivity for more than a year were given gold pins and taken out to lunch.

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