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Workers’ Compensation Coverage For Repetitive Motion Injuries
Repetitive motion injuries (RMIs), also known as cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs), have become common in the modern workplace, especially in such professions as poultry and meat processing, cashiering, truck driving, assembling, glass cutting, keyboarding, and those using certain harmful tools or equipment. A worker may develop a work-related RMI by repeatedly and over time performing the same motion in a work task, causing eventual musculoskeletal or nerve injury from wear and tear to a particular body part, usually to the hand, wrist, or elbow, but also sometimes to the neck, shoulders, or back. Other contributing factors are extreme temperatures and vibrations. Common RMIs include carpal tunnel syndrome, DeQuervain’s disease, tendinitis, Raynaud’s syndrome (vibration white finger), synovitis, tenosynovitis (including trigger finger), epicondylitis (tennis elbow), bursitis, and others. Symptoms include swelling, stiffness, numbness, pain, and a restricted ability to move and/or grasp.
The last few decades have seen a resulting increase in workers’ compensation claims for work-related RMIs, which now account for a significant proportion of total claims. Each state’s workers’ compensation system handles these claims differently and according to its own laws and regulations; therefore, if you suffer from a work-related RMI, an attorney with experience in workers’ comp can recommend how to handle your particular claim. In some states, RMIs are routinely covered by workers’ comp, and in others, success is more difficult to achieve.
A particularly difficult issue in RMI workers’ comp claims is determining the date of onset. The date of onset is important in a workers’ comp case because the date of injury can affect the rate of compensation, whether an injury is covered at all, or which insurance carrier pays the claim. An RMI, although an injury, does not happen suddenly at a given moment, but rather develops over time, so decision makers struggle with whether to treat an RMI more like a typical injury or more like a gradual occupational disease. To determine onset date of an RMI, state courts, agencies, and legislatures may consider the last date worked, the date work restrictions were imposed, and/or the date of the last trauma.
Whether an RMI is work-related is another common issue. An employer may contend a cumulative trauma injury is just part of normal aging or instead of by work tasks, caused by activity outside of work, such as needlepoint or golf. Because RMIs develop gradually and invisibly, proof of origin can be difficult. Even proving the existence of some RMIs can be difficult because objective medical evidence can be scarce. Adding to the confusion, medical science suggests that other factors not related to work, such as gender, age, pregnancy, smoking, and other medical conditions, may contribute to RMI development.
Employers can utilize the new science of ergonomics, known technically as human factors engineering, to improve working conditions in such a way as to reduce the risk of RMIs, and reducing the risk of RMIs can cause a corresponding decrease in the numbers of RMI workers’ comp claims. Ergonomic improvements can be made in the actual work space and furniture; in the way a task is performed; in the type of tools and equipment used; in the way tools and equipment are used; by increasing the number of employees utilized for a task and relaxing target production times; and by building into the work day breaks, rest, job rotation, and/or stretching or exercise. Quality of life at work improves for employees, and employers benefit from increased productivity and decreased workers’ compensation costs, absenteeism, and turnover.
If, despite your employer’s attempt at an ergonomically healthy workplace, you sustain a repetitive strain injury, a lawyer can advise you of your workers’ compensation rights and help you with your claim. In addition, ask for legal advice about the possibility of other legal claims for the injury, such as an employer lawsuit outside the workers’ comp system or a product liability lawsuit if your injury involved a tool or piece of equipment.
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