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 professions such 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 over time by repeatedly performing the same motion in a work task, causing eventual musculoskeletal or nerve injury from wear and tear to a particular body part. Damage is usually to the hand, wrist or elbow but is also sometimes to the neck, shoulders or back. Other contributing factors are extreme temperatures and vibrations. Common RMIs include carpal tunnel syndrome, de Quervain’s tenosynovitis, tendinitis, Raynaud’s disease, 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 accounts 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 the 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 that a cumulative trauma injury is just part of normal aging or was caused instead by an 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 several ways, including:

  • In the actual workspace and furniture
  • In the way a task is performed
  • In the types of tools and equipment used as well as the ways in which they are used
  • By increasing the number of employees utilized for a task and relaxing target production times
  • By building breaks, rest, job rotation and/or stretching or exercise into the workday

Quality of life at work improves productivity 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 products liability lawsuit if your injury involved a tool or piece of equipment.