Nothing new under the sun

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During a recent holiday, I visited Porthcuno in west Cornwall. It’s a small, isolated, village with a sandy beach in a secluded cove not far from Lands End. Yet between 1870 and 1970 it was the hub of international cable communications. At one time, there were 14 cables spreading out under the sea from the beach to all parts of the world. Until 1993 it was also the location of a training college for the communications industry. Today, the college buildings have been converted into the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum. Its an interesting museum, telling the story of telegraphy and cable communications and the Porthcurno site.

While visiting the museum I spotted a copy of a monograph published by the “Industrial Fatigue Research Board” in 1927 which was on display.

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A little research reveals that “Telegraphist’s Cramp” was a type of work related upper limb disorder (ULD), similar to carpal tunnel syndrome, with symptoms including muscular cramps or spasms. The condition appears to have been prevalent amongst telegraph operators during the early 1900’s, and even cropped up in a Parliamentary question in 1910.

Today, we have a good understanding of the causes of ULDS. They are likely to occur where the work involves several of the following factors  –

  • excessive force
  • awkward or fixed posture
  • long duration
  • repetition
  • vibration
  • Organisational factors, such as high workloads, tight deadlines and lack of worker control over their work

I suspect that a risk assessment for telegraph operators sending messages by Morse code would have revealed that the work involved most of these factors, so its not surprising that some workers developed problems.

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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia

In the early part of the 20th Century, however, the causes of many industrial diseases, including musculoskeletal disorders, were not so well understood. The early studies into “telegraphist’s cramp” concluded that it was caused by ‘muscular fatigue’ and the “inherent mental weakness”, or neurosis, of the affected operators.

“The majority of the cramp group were ‘ highly strung/nervous persons whose emotional reactions to tests devised were of a relatively unstable, uncontrollable, and unadapted type.” (Med. Res. Council. Indust. Fatigue Res. Board. Rep. No. 43. 1927 pp. iv+46 pp.)

The mental state of the workers was blamed for the problem, rather than the work. So the solution proposed was that “young people showing psychoneurotic symptoms or muscular inefficiency should not be advised to take up telegraphy or similar forms of employment”.

Although individual factors do play a role (not everyone carrying out work presenting a risk of ULDs develop them), today, hopefully, we’d take a different view, recognising that the condition is caused by the work. The best solution is to try to minimise the risk to individuals by making changes to the task and work organisation.

I suspect that there’s a perception amongst many workers, safety representatives and health and safety professionals that work related ULDs or “RSI” is  a relatively new problem associated with keyboard work. However, “telegraphist’s cramp” is only one example of a number of conditions known about during the19th and early 20th centuries where poor ergonomics resulted in musculoskeletal disorders.

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