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Finding the Last Straw: Workers’ Comp Cumulative Injuries and Causation

When you’re seriously injured, you know it. Most of the workplace injuries you hear about in the news are pretty clear-cut: machinery malfunctioned, someone slipped, a tool was dropped, etc. But what about the more silent slips? I’m talking about the majority of workers’ compensation claims: cumulative injuries. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the incidence of cumulative trauma disorders rose almost 1000% between 1982 and 1991. And it keeps rising. So, why don’t we hear about it? It’s not an interesting story.

You’ve been working hard for many years, you’re accustomed to your job, and you perform it well. Then, one day, something’s different. Sometimes you can’t quite place the problem. You just know that you can’t do the same things that you used to be able to do. And you want to shrug it off…but you shouldn’t. And most often, you can’t. Other times, you wake up with centralized, excruciating pain. But, still, you haven’t done anything different. And often you’re initially confused about the origin of the pain.

Workers’ compensation claims are complicated, mostly because it’s not easy to trace causation. Many employees who suffer on-the-job injuries are involved in occupations that tend to tax their bodies regularly: factory and construction workers. Often, these workers are also fiercely loyal and extremely dependable, staying at their jobs for many years. The combination of arduous labor and the passage of time wear down the body and slowly bring about many debilitating injuries.

So, what’s the difference between these types of injuries and your standard work accident that results from a specific trauma to the body? Causation is much more difficult to prove. There’s not a cut-and-dry explanation of ‘A’ happened and, thus, ‘B’ is the result. Rather, each day of work has slowly contributed to the degeneration or breakdown of the worker’s body. There’s not one thing that went wrong, but many years of bodily abuse. It’s always worthwhile to piece together the causal chain that explains your injury. With mounting medical bills, it seems unfair that you have the added fiscal strain of dealing with discomfort.

All you want to do is get back to your normal routine. And you should be able to do just that…you just have to fight for your right to do so. Before it gets to that point, though, there are steps that can decrease the likelihood of allowing cumulative injuries to form; namely, safety precautions. Recently, fellow IB attorneys Steve Lombardi and Brooks Schuelke have discussed steps that construction workers can take to protect themselves. It’s important that factory workers, auto mechanics and others who perform physically demanding work do the same, insisting on proper safety training from their employers. Here are some warning signs that there might be an impending problem:

  • Numbness (oftentimes at night)
  • Decreased Joint Motion
  • Swelling
  • Burning
  • Pain
  • Aching
  • Redness
  • Weakness
  • Tingling
  • Clumsiness
  • Cracking or popping of joints

The above symptoms may involve the back, shoulders, elbows, wrists, or fingers. If symptoms last for at least one week, or if they occur on many occasions, you should consult a doctor. Prevention is preferable to treatment, so be aware of your body and keep any eye out for any discomfort. Cumulative trauma is a serious problem in today’s workplace, and the less you allow the injury to accumulate, the more of a chance you will have to successfully deal with the problem.

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