Risky business – design students and RSIs

News - 27 June 2022

Why do design students experience a relatively high rate of repetitive strain injuries (RSIs)? Assistant Professor of Applied Ergonomics and Design Marijke Dekker was attracted to this phenomenon. For her PhD, she investigated the risk factors that contribute to RSIs at the TU Delft | Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering (IDE) and designed a prevention programme to reduce complaints and increase wellbeing among students.  The programme was established in 2000 and is still active today.

Rising cases

The term ‘repetitive strain injury’ (RSI) generally refers to pain, tingling, numbness, and loss of strength caused by the repeated movement of a part of the body and a static working posture. In the early 2000s, there was a notable increase in the number of IDE students suffering from RSIs according to Dekker. Working in the ergonomics group, they received numerous reports of complaints, often in the arms, shoulders, hands, or back and requests for product related advice. “We were triggered to focus on this topic from a more practical and theoretical perspective,” she says. In order to do something about the problem, Dekker needed to understand the etiologies and the physical, psychosocial, and personal risk factors that contribute to RSI. In longitudinal studies she monitored the prevalence and seriousness of students’ complaints over a time period of 15 years.

Lees Marijke's thesis:

The risk factors

Through years of research, Dekker found that the study environment and educational programmes of IDE contain many aspects that relate to RSI risk factors. Certain risk factors that are particularly present in the curriculum are the required precision in many computer tasks, the complex nature of designing, and the high ambition of students when it comes to creating personal designs. Strict and frequent deadlines can cause high workloads, planning problems, stress, and work pressure, while also contributing to the physical complaints. She concluded that the creative nature of IDE’s study programme, likely plays a role in the development of complaints too, because creative processes are more difficult in terms of planning. These factors were confirmed by the fact that the other creative study programme at TU Delft, architecture, also struggles with relatively high numbers of students reporting RSI complaints.

Preventive product design

RSI’s exist in many other educational and occupational settings. “Musicians can experience RSI, or butchers deboning meat in a cold environment all day long, or race car drivers,” she says. However, the focus of Dekker’s research is on the office environment and in particular the educational setting of design students. Her thesis includes design ideas developed by IDE master’s graduate students based on the theoretical knowledge developed. One example is a drinking bottle that encourages the user to drink water. It emits a reminder to fill the bottle and presumably drink more, which results in its owner having to go to the toilet more often. This forces the person to step away from the screen and have a small break with physical movement.

Preventive programme

An important outcome of Dekker’s research was the design of a RSI prevention programme at IDE. It includes workshops on RSI prevention for first-year students and refreshers for those in upper years. And together with Cesar therapists (people trained in therapies that prevent complaints as a result of incorrect posture and movement patterns), they organised sport and relaxation activities to create awareness around the topic. “There is great cooperation with masseurs, Cesar therapists, doctors of the Students’ Health Service , and health and safety advisors at work. This multidisciplinary team organises these activities,” says Dekker. “I’m quite proud of the activities of the prevention group, the continuation year in and year out, and that you give students a ‘bag’ full of information and tools for their future studies and future career.”

Awareness is the key

Products that remind people of physical and cognitive relaxation are helpful, but Dekker says she believes awareness and prevention play a bigger role in the future. “It’s more important to inform computer workers how complaints or symptoms can develop, what are the causes, and to provide reassurance that you can do something about it. Being anxious or worried only creates more tension. It can turn for the better even in cases of very severe complaints which are more psychologically based.” She says, “I think the results of my research are valuable in a wide sense, not only for students industrial design engineering but for many other educational and professional computer workers.”

In her thesis, Dekker offers some advice aimed at students, faculty staff, as well as the government. “I think we should continue with this kind of prevention programme in general to create comfort and wellbeing while performing computer work. In the future I would like to work on how we, at the faculty, offer small possibilities to relax and to move in the working environment. Now we’re so focussed on the cognitive part of human beings, but I feel that people in general need some ability to change activity, to move, to relax and I think it’s quite a challenge. Also, for students and staff who have deadlines all the time, to think about how to design these kinds of activities with care.”