Repetitive Motion Injuries
When many people think of workers' compensation claims, they think of a life-altering instant the scaffolding that collapsed or the machine that severed a finger. Frequently people attach some measure of blame to the employer in these cases, as well. But workers' compensation cases deal with much more than those limited instances. There's no requirement that the company be at fault in a workers' compensation case, nor is there a requirement that an injury must be traced to a single, specific event.
Many claims for workers' compensation are approved in cases involving injuries that develop gradually as part of a person's day-to-day job. From asthma to hearing loss to repetitive stress injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, if an injury or ailment occurs on the job or as a result of the job, an employee may qualify for workers' compensation benefits. Even with a pre-existing condition, workers may be eligible for compensation if their conditions are made permanently worse by the job.
Repetitive stress injuries (also known as repetitive motion injuries or cumulative trauma injuries), such as carpal tunnel syndrome, are one of the largest sources of workers' compensation claims nationwide. Assembly line jobs, in particular, have a high incidence of repetitive motion injuries, including bursitis, tendonitis, and carpal tunnel.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is a painful progressive condition caused by the compression of a key nerve in the wrist, the median nerve. This nerve, which controls the sensations and nerve impulses for much of the hand, passes through a narrow passageway of ligament and bones called the carpal tunnel. When swelling causes the median nerve to be compressed in the tunnel, numbness, tingling, and pain can result. Left untreated, hand muscles can deteriorate, making it difficult to grasp objects or perform other work with the hands.
Workers' compensation is designed to pay for injured workers' lost wages and medical bills. Workers' comp will also continue to pay for necessary medical expenses related to an injury after an employee returns to work. Unlike a personal injury claim, though, workers' compensation does not provide compensation for pain and suffering from the injury. Most any injury, if it occurs on the job, is covered by workers' comp, even if the injury was the workers' own fault. Because workers' comp covers such a wide range of work-related injuries, an important key in a workers' comp case is establishing that the injury occurred on the job. In some cases that is quite easy, but repetitive stress injuries take time to develop, so it is often more difficult to establish that an injury like carpal tunnel syndrome is work-related.
Under Pennsylvania law, if a causal connection between the disability and the person's work activity isn't obvious (as it would be from a single incident), the legal burden is on the person making the claim to show the connection by unequivocal medical testimony. In other words, the injured person must present testimony from a doctor indicating that in the doctor's medical opinion, the injury was caused by the person's work. Although other doctors might disagree, the key is that the testimony itself cannot be vague, doubtful, or open to more than one interpretation in the doctor's opinion, there must be a clear connection. Ultimately, a Workers' Compensation Judge determines if the medical testimony presented shows an unequivocal link between work and the injury.
Carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive stress injuries can take a worker away from his or her job for days, weeks, or even permanently. Accordingly, it is important to both seek medical help and to seek workers' compensation to help pay for any loss of income and medical expenses. Pennsylvania law limits the amount of time a worker has to notify his or her employer of an injury if the worker wants to receive workers' comp benefits but this can be difficult to determine in the case of a repetitive stress injury. The best idea is to notify an employer as soon as a problem becomes apparent, and seek medical treatment and legal advice shortly thereafter. Working with an attorney who has experience in the Pennsylvania workers' compensation system can help to ensure your rights and interests are protected.