The prevalence of workplace repetitive strain injury (RSI) in Europe is likely to have been exaggerated, suggests research published ahead of print in Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
The findings prompt the authors to call into question the use of Labour Force Surveys of occupational ill health, which are widely used by European governments as an authoritative source of data to plan their occupational health strategies.
These surveys ask people if they think their illness is related to their job, and have produced a figure of more than 2 million people in the UK with job related ill health.
The authors quizzed by email 5000 randomly chosen patients from five general practice registers in Britain.
Participants were asked about the physical nature of their job, their mental and general state of health, whether they had RSI, and what they thought had caused it.
The authors used the responses to calculate the fraction of arm pain likely to be be caused or aggravated by arm straining activities. This figure, known as the population attributable fraction or PAF, was 14%.
Among the 1800 people who fully responded to all the questions, almost half (46%) said they had had arm pain in the previous 12 months.
Of these, 54% felt that their job had either caused or worsened their symptoms, a figure more than three times the PAF calculated by the researchers.
This discrepancy was almost twice as great in those under the age of 50 as it was among those who were older. And it was also greater among those with poorer mental and general health.
The authors conclude that simply counting people who think their RSI is related to their work can substantially inflate the number of cases that are actually caused or worsened by it.
"Statistics from Labour Force Surveys are widely quoted as evidence for the scale of occupational illness," they say. "However, their validity as a measure of the burden of disease caused by work is questionable."
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