Window Cleaner Repetitive Strain Injury – An Occupational Hazard Or Simple Overuse?
You may be considering your workplace health and safety or shrugging off a nagging musculoskeletal symptom. Either way, window cleaner repetitive strain injury may need to be something you are aware of as it is one of the major causes of work-related ill-health in the trade.
This condition has been increasing in prevalence across industries since the 1970s and particularly affects the arms, wrists, hands, neck and shoulders. Window cleaner RSI not only impacts your bottom line in loss of earnings but diminishes a window cleaners’ physical capacity to perform the job well.
Repetitive Strain Injury is a well-known occupational hazard in the trade. Window cleaning professionals across the world are affected by this debilitating condition and looking for answers, treatments and preventative strategies that will enable them to work while maintaining good health.
What is repetitive strain injury?
RSI or Repetitive Strain Injury is a broad term covering a range of nervous system and musculoskeletal injuries caused by repetitive tasks such as those encountered in window cleaning.
Examples include movements which are forceful, causing vibrations or compression and sustained awkward postures and positioning. Conditions which might be considered as part of a window cleaner repetitive strain injury include window cleaner tendinosis or tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow and thoracic outlet syndrome.
These conditions can also be known as Upper Limb Disorders (ULD), affecting the joints, muscles, ligaments and tendons in the upper limbs.
It is not hard to see how the repetitive movements of the various methods and tasks of window cleaning can contribute to this overuse syndrome.
It is thought to be caused by repetitive actions, movements with a fixed posture, exertion, and poor ergonomic techniques. Symptoms are varied and include (especially in the upper body) sore extremities, tingling, weakness and discomfort.
The condition is characterised by its chronicity and though it is brought on by the tasks and movements involved in window cleaning, its effects may start to be felt in other activities and areas of life. If severe, RSI can permanently disable, leading to loss of livelihood and therefore should not be overlooked.
What kind of repetitive strain injuries do window cleaners describe?
Indeed, many window cleaning contractors with a nagging muscular, joint or nerve pain problem will start to research if RSI is the cause and look for solutions and strategies to improve symptoms.
‘Window cleaners shoulder’ is a commonly reported type of RSI amongst window cleaners who report a painful, stiff and aching shoulder in relation to work. Other common RSI complaints by window cleaners online include:
- Pain in wrists and elbows
- Back and neck pain
- Numbness and tingling in fingertips
- Joint and tendon swelling
How does window cleaning cause RSI?
As mentioned above, window cleaning like other service-based trades carries the occupational risk of development of repetitive strain injury.
Window cleaner repetitive strain injury tends to come from cumulative trauma rather than single injury – a sum of multiple instances of damaging small movements which if not corrected cause damage to nerves and tissues in the hands, arm and shoulders.
A number of contributing factors for window cleaning RSI are known which include:
Working outdoors – Extremes of temperature are known to increase the risk of developing a repetitive strain injury. Year-round working with little or no hand protection and water can precipitate musculoskeletal and nerve trauma.
Time pressure – Where jobs have to be completed thoroughly and quickly, care with posture and technique may be neglected.
Working at extremes of height – Completing jobs where there is a need to reach beyond one’s height or crouch down can increase the risk of strain injuries.
Lots of arm and shoulder movement – The reaching, pulling and pushing movements at the shoulder can cause damage over time to many window cleaners. A number in the profession report shoulder and arm pain which is occupational and strain injury can build-up around the shoulder joint where it is continually in use.
Excessive reach – to access tools in your tool-belt or access areas that are hard to reach.
Hand and forearm muscles repeatedly used with force -can lead to a build-up of long-term damage in these areas.
Weight and size of tools – such as water fed poles can affect the ability to handle them appropriately and safely.
Posture-based – Water fed pole window cleaning is particularly problematic. The fixed posture with the repetitive movement of the pole above height can precipitate an RSI.
Poor technique– Self-trained cleaners may be affected by using techniques that only worsen the pressure, posture and movement problems which cause RSI.
For some window cleaners, it is only when an injury occurs that they will reflect on their cleaning techniques and seek to improve them.
Excessive pressure or grip on tools – Squeegees, rags and poles may be being habitually gripped too tightly or used with excessive pressure. Over multiple uses, damage can occur to the hands and wrists.
Little variation in work routine or activities – the stereotyped movements and steps used in window cleaning are repeated multiple times per day increases the risk that a pattern of movement that causes damage may be established.
Investigating and managing window cleaner repetitive strain injury
A variety of medical investigations and interventions are available for sufferers of RSI. Elements of this condition can be diagnosed with simple effort-based assessments such as pinch strength and grip and specific tests for conditions such as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome which can be part of RSI.
More complex symptoms such as back and neck pain may require imaging using MRI and may be prudent to identify and avoid long-term damage.
Unfortunately, modern medicine has its limits in managing or treating window cleaner repetitive strain injury. First line approaches include Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation – the RICE protocol.
Beyond that sufferers are looking at painkillers, steroid injections, operations and a variety of therapies including targeted physiotherapy and exercise. Back and neck braces can also support posture related injuries.
The efficacy of these treatments is highly subjective and different patients have similarly varying experiences of what worked or helped.
The most important aspect of managing this condition is stopping or at least reducing the occupational exposure that caused the RSI in the first place. For window cleaners, posture, technique, tools and working patterns may need to be reviewed and altered for relief of symptoms.
Tips and strategies to prevent window cleaner repetitive strain injury
Perhaps one of the best sources of advice for window cleaner repetitive strain injury is other window cleaners. Stopping the trade is not an option for most, who rely on their window cleaning for their livelihood. New ways of working safely in a non-damaging way have to be found.
Window cleaners understand how the trade will affect their RSI symptoms and many online have found ingenious ways to manage the pain and discomfort of RSI whilst working. In addition, manufacturers of tools and equipment are sensitive to the need to design tools that will be less likely to cause RSI when used daily. Some techniques include:
*Use alternative hands/limbs – one of the most common pieces of advice by professionals is to use the alternate limb. This relieves the affected limb and provides a balance in the use and movement of the body when working. For many, it takes some getting used to but reduced pain is commonly reported.
*Alter your technique – the development of an injury may be one of the first times a window cleaner will address the technique they use to do the job. This is an opportune time to examine cleaning methods and how tools are handled. Search online or here on the forum for a variety of resources and technique manuals and training videos. Adjustment usually provides symptomatic relief.
*Wagtail squeegee – one of the major causes of RSI is the small repetitive steps taken while on the job. A wagtail squeegee works by combining the soaping up and squeegee stages of your job with one tool rather than repeatedly changing between the T-bar and squeegee constantly.
*Rearranged tool-belt – simply moving your traditional window cleaning tools to the opposite hip of your tool-belt will help in you using your less dominant shoulder which is ideal for shoulder pain.
*Workwear choices – gloves, in particular, are ideal for protecting hands from moisture and temperature extremes and aiding in gripping tools such as water fed poles so that you do not have to grip so tightly.
Employing or working with others?
If you are employing or working with other window cleaners you have a legal obligation to protect your workers from injury and ill-health due to RSIs.
Your window cleaning firm will need to be able to identify and mitigate any risks that could cause RSI to someone in your team. Speak with your employees to see if symptoms are prevalent and also carefully observe work tasks to see if they could give rise to an injury.