Library shelvers suffer from repetitive stress injuries

By
Friday, October 24, 2008

Andy Pereira grabbed a stack of medical books and hauled them onto a shelf of the fifth floor of the Sciences Library.

To do so, Pereira, a library technician, used a left arm scarred by two nerve transposition surgeries on his elbow and a shoulder surgery needed after 28 years of shelving books at Brown.

He was awarded worker’s compensation for the injuries in 2000, 2002 and 2003 after he hired a lawyer to prove that they were work-related.

Pereira is one of six full-time shelvers employed by the University Library to lift, bend and reach, in addition to pushing carts of books weighing between 80 and 120 pounds. About 20 students assist them as part-time shelvers.

Another shelver, who asked not to be named, said she has been away since July because of a work-related injury. The absence has reduced the number of full-time shelvers to five instead of the usual six, and no additional full-time employee has been hired, nor have the wages been increased for the remaining shelvers.

Of the three current shelvers and one former shelver in both the SciLi and Rockefeller Library who agreed to speak with The Herald, three said they had suffered work-related injuries.

“I can certainly see how you could get overused,” said Anthony DeLuise, an orthopedic surgeon specialized in upper extremities at Foundry Orthopedics in Providence. “If they’re heavy books and it’s all day long, probably.”

“Repetitive motion can cause injuries,” said Shawn Baxter, occupational therapist and ergonomist at the John E. Donley Rehabilitation Center in Providence. He added that, among employees who work in libraries that he treats, “you see a fair number of shoulder injuries and back injuries.”

Ensuring a safe work environment for Brown employees is a priority, University Librarian Harriette Hemmasi wrote in a letter to The Herald. “The University has policies and procedures in place to ensure the health and safety of employees.”

Director of Insurance and Risk Jeanne Hebert said that Brown fared favorably in a 2007 benchmarking report comparing workers’ compensation in different institutions. “We have a good, strong program,” she said.

Neither Hebert nor other University officials would discuss specific cases for this article, citing privacy concerns.

Lawyer Stephen Dennis, who specializes in Rhode Island workers’ compensation law, said that he has seen many slowly developing injuries coming out of Brown and has taken on numerous cases, including Pereira’s.

The heavy books, he said, “just break these guys and women down.”

Work-related back pains

Pereira said his shoulder first became painful in 1999, and his doctor deemed the injury work-related. “I thought I was set,” he said.

But he discovered he needed a lawyer to prove his case – three times he ended up needing a lawyer to get compensation. Dennis, his lawyer, immediately asked him if he had missed any work because of his injury, Pereira said. He had not, since he instead opted to go on light-duty – alternating between working in the library and the booth at a parking garage on Brook Street – instead of using his sick days.

He and his lawyer filed a court petition in 2000, but withdrew it without prejudice – meaning they could take the case back up if the shoulder pain resurfaced – after realizing that his shoulder injury would likely not be ruled work-related because he had not missed any days of work.

By this time, the pain had extended down to his elbow. In July 2000, he saw a doctor, who told him the problems in his ulna nerve were work-related. But when he presented his doctor’s evaluation to his employer, “Brown didn’t accept my injury as work-related. Even with my doctor’s advice,” Pereira said.

He went to court again, where the judge requested an examination by an impartial medical examiner, who also said the injury was caused by the job, Pereira said. He was awarded worker’s compensation in September 2000.

Over the next three years, Pereira would endure an unsuccessful surgery, another worker’s compensation claim, another round of corrective surgery and, in August 2003, a final worker’s compensation claim. Each time, he said, a court-appointed physician said his injuries were related to his work at Brown.

If an injury is established as work-related, insurance pays the lawyers. If injury is not established, the lawyer is not paid, Pereira said.

Pereira continues to work as a shelver despite his history of injuries. “When you’re supporting a family, you can’t just quit a job,” he said. Before he suffered his injuries, Pereira made $676 per 37.5 hour work-week before taxes, he said. He now makes $815 a week.

Problems for others

A former shelver told a similar story of a physically taxing job. Stephen Conlon, who incurred a herniated disk in his back that he said is a result of his 14 years as a shelver, said the work has “a lot of ergonomic red flares.”

“The floors are stone and books start from the ground up to as high as nine feet,” he said.

His back pains were initially mild, Conlon said, but became acute in November 2001. “I woke up one night and I couldn’t walk,” he recounted. Because of the gradual development of his injury, he said he did not feel compelled to take any action – “until that unforgettable night.” He went to see a doctor several weeks after his back pains began. The physician would not certify that the injury was work-related, though Conlon maintains that it is.

After his surgery in 2001, which his health insurance paid for, Conlon returned to the Rockefeller Library and now works as a clerk in its preservation section.

A current shelver has experienced pain in her feet for about two years. Lisa Shea, who has worked as a shelver for about six years, said at the time her doctor diagnosed the bursae in both of her inflamed feet as work-related.

“It’s not a woman’s job,” Shea said. “It pays well. That’s why I’m doing it.”

She said she decided to have surgery on her feet on her sick time because it was easier than going through the process of filing for worker’s compensation.

“I’ve learned to work around it,” she said of the pain.

Head of Preservation Eric Shoaf said shelving does have a “physical component” to it, but that other jobs do, too.

Shoaf said the library has taken action to prevent injuries, such as hosting a workshop on how to properly shelve and having workers divide up their time on the job so that they are not doing the same movement for too long.

“We’ve certainly given them the skills (to prevent injury),” he said. “Whether they apply them or not, I don’t know.”

Stephen Morin, director of Environmental Health and Safety, said that safety training is always available on campus. He added that shelving is not an area that jumps out as having a high occurrence of injuries.

Block out blues

A block out period in May and December can put additional stress on employees. Shelver Russell Tandy said his job becomes more painful during these periods, when students are checking many books out as they study for exams or work on papers. For these busy six weeks, shelvers are requested not to take vacations.

Tandy said he is fortunate not to have suffered any injuries in his 10 years of work. But he said he has lost strength in his right hand, which becomes particularly painful during the “block out” period.

“We don’t understand the May ‘block out’,” Tandy said. “You would think you’d have all summer to put the books back.”

All shelvers are needed during these weeks so that students and faculty can access books, Director of Labor Relations Joseph Sarno said. He said that vacations are not forbidden, but “discouraged.” Staffing is increased during the block out periods to help the full-time employees.

Shelvers are the only library employees subject to what is known as a block out, Karen McAninch ’74, business agent of the United Service and Allied Workers of Rhode Island, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. The United Service and Allied Workers of Rhode Island, whose executive board Pereira sits on, represents 80 library workers at Brown.

The union does not think a block out period should be allowed, and has discussed the issue with the library, McAninch said. She said she hopes that this might change under new leadership.

Enough extra help for shelvers?

The absence of a full-time employee has not made the working situation easier for the shelvers.

The library should be replacing employees who are on an injury leave, McAninch, of the United Service and Allied Workers of Rhode Island, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald, adding that this would avoid putting more pressure on those who are still at work.

Shoaf, the library’s preservation head, said the libraries have both a full-time staff and part-time student workers who can pick up the extra work. “We can use all of our staff to fill in these gaps,” said Shoaf, who has overseen shelving for 15 years and will leave Brown at the end of the month.

Shelving Manager Michelle Venditelli, who works under Shoaf, declined to speak for this article.

Patrick Free ’11, one of about 20 part-time shelvers, spends eight hours a week putting away books at the Rockefeller Library. “The most difficult thing is going up and down,” he said, but added that he did not find the job particularly demanding physically.

“But I’m a young guy, so it must be harder if you’re older and have back pains,” he said.

Some libraries are starting to mechanize the borrowing process, thus alleviating some of the stress on shelvers. For instance, in July, the libraries in Douglas County, Colorado started using Vista Sorting – an automated materials handling system – to identify, check in and sort returning books. The library group is among the first in Colorado to implement such a system, in part to reduce “the risk of staff injuries associated with repetitive motion tasks and heavy lifting,” according to Business Wire.