Risk of repetitive strain injury different across gender in some fields: study

Stark differences in RSI risk for men and women in sectors including construction, agriculture

Published: July 31, 2013

Does the risk of a work-related repetitive strain injury (RSI) within an economic sector differ for men and women? This was one of the questions behind a study looking at gender and the risk of work-related RSIs in Canada, to be published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. As in previous studies, this study found that a higher percentage of women report work-related RSIs than men (7.5 per cent and 6.9 per cent, respectively).

Our findings suggest that gender contributes to RSI risk in diverse ways based on job segregation, non-work exposures and, possibly, biological vulnerability, says Institute for Work & Health Scientist Dr. Curtis Breslin, the lead researcher on the study. More tailored, gender-specific approaches to RSI prevention may be warranted.

Sector comparison

Breslin’s study used data from Statistics Canada’s Canadian Community Health Survey over the period 2003-2005. The analysis was based on 89,000 respondents who reported working at least one week in the past year. It incorporated information on the self-reported prevalence of RSI, including whether the respondents attributed the cause of the injury to work activities.

The large size of the sample allowed researchers to look for links between work-related RSI and socioeconomic conditions, and between work-related RSI and types of work—all broken down by gender. They found that, in most industrial sectors, the risk of a work-related RSI was similar for men and women. But important differences in RSI were found in some sectors.

In a sector grouping arts, entertainment, accommodation and food services, men’s risk of RSI was 23 per cent lower compared to men working in the retail sector (retail workers were the comparison group in this study). However, RSI risk for women in entertainment/accommodation was on par with RSI risk for women in retail. For men working in agriculture, forestry, mining and utilities, the risk of RSI was 25 per cent higher compared to retail. For women in these sectors, the risk of RSI was slightly lower when compared to retail.

A more dramatic gender difference was seen in construction, where the RSI risk for men was 65 per cent higher compared to retail, whereas the RSI risk for women was 28 per cent lower. Breslin says he was somewhat surprised by that discrepancy.

That difference between men and women in construction—we wouldn’t have necessarily expected that, he says. We hear from the ministries of labour that the few women who do get into this work get injured because they’re basically using tools and lifting things that are designed for men. But when you look at it at the population level, there didn’t seem to be that much risk for women.

That could be because men and women have different job tasks within certain sectors, including construction, notes Breslin. The study data did not contain that level of detail, however, so more research would be needed before he could say for sure.

For both men and women, the study found certain factors tended to be linked to work-related RSI. One of them was age. Workers between 15 and 24 years old tended to report the lowest levels of work-related RSI, while workers in the 35-to-44 and 45-to-54 age brackets tended to report the highest levels. Women aged 45 to 54 reported higher levels of work-related RSI (10.8 per cent) than men and women in all other age groups.  

Both men and women who found their jobs stressful also reported higher levels of work-related RSI. In fact, the prevalence of RSI among people who reported working in stressful jobs was nearly double that for workers in low-stress jobs (e.g. 10.2 per cent of women in high-stress jobs compared to 5.3 per cent of women in low-stress jobs).

Because this study used the same measure for work-related RSI across Canada, the researchers had a rare look at the prevalence of RSI across provincial boundaries. Here, Breslin found a very stark contrast.

The risk of RSI was significantly higher for workers in British Columbia than in Ontario, with men facing 29 per cent higher risk and women 47 per cent higher risk. That’s after personal and work-related factors were taken into account.

Possible explanations for this provincial difference are somewhat complicated, says Breslin. One might be how provinces deal with RSI in their programs and policies. For over a decade, B.C. has had stringent regulations on workplace ergonomics. Further research is needed to know whether higher levels of RSI symptoms in the province were what prompted lawmakers to tackle the issue in the first place. Or it could be that tackling the issue made workers more aware of RSIs.

We can’t evaluate the extent to which the self-reported bias may be there. But we have to acknowledge it, says Breslin. At minimum, the study points to the need for further investigation into the causes of the provincial differences. This is the first time anybody has taken a look at the provincial differences, he says.