Workers’ Compensation and Repetitive Stress Injuries

Posted on Friday, September 6th, 2019 at 3:11 pm    

Repetitive stress injuries, according to Medical News Today, can affect most every movable part of your body. They are generally associated with repeating the same task over and over again, vibrations, and forceful exertions. Some of the other names for repetitive stress injury (RSI) are repetitive motion disorder, cumulative motion disorder, repetitive motion injury, occupational overuse syndrome, and regional musculoskeletal disorder. 

Generally, in both North Carolina and Virginia, repetitive stress injuries do not constitute valid claims. If one claims, for instance, that due to years of heavy lifting one’s back has started to hurt, that claim will be denied by the insurance company as well as by both the Virginia Workers Comp Commission or the North Carolina Industrial Commission. 

There are, however, a couple of sets of exceptions carved out in the law.  

The first is if the repetitive stress injury is suddenly aggravated by a traumatic event. In Virginia, as long as the doctor can say that the traumatic event caused a “sudden mechanical change” in the injured body part, then this would be a valid injury. Similarly, in North Carolina, a slip, trip or fall that aggravates a repetitive injury would be compensable. 

The second set of exceptions relate to some specific injuries that are very common and generally accepted as either occupational diseases or ordinary diseases of life caused by repetitive work trauma.  

Carpal tunnel syndrome is perhaps the best- known form of RSI. It is treated as an ordinary disease of life that is an occupational disease. It is a condition, according to Orthoinfo, that occurs when a major nerve to the hand (the median nerve) “is squeezed or compressed as it travels through the wrist.” It can be quite painful and generally gets worse over time unless it is treated. For some patients, surgery may be required to take pressure off the median nerve.

CTS is very common in machinist occupations and electrical occupations where repetitive use of the hands is required. 

Some of the symptoms of repetitive stress disorder

Symptoms include:

  • A throbbing sensation or a pulsing sensation in the part of the body affected
  • Loss of sensation
  • Pain or tenderness in affected joints and muscles
  • Loss of strength
  • A tingling sensation
  • Reduced range of motion
  • Reduced flexibility

Symptoms often vary depending on the part of the body that is affected.

Many workers don’t’ realize they have an RSI until the damage to their body is significant. By the time they do feel the pain, they need to stop working and get medical help.

Causes of repetitive stress injury

Some of the general causes of repetitive stress injuries include:

  • Using the same muscle or group of muscles again and again
  • Working in temperatures that are cold
  • Equipment that vibrates
  • Not working in a sound ergonomic work environment
  • Poor posture or keeping the same posture for a long time
  • Tiredness
  • Carry of lifting heavy objects
  • Direct pressure on a certain part of the body

Psychological stress can worsen RSI.

Some of the causes of RSI that cause workers to lose time off from work and file a workers’ compensation claim include:

  • Computer work. This is one of the more common causes of RSI, more specifically carpal tunnel syndrome. Workers who type and type all day long are using the same muscles over and over again. Clicking a mouse, typing on a keyboard, using a smartphone while typing – all can lead to repetitive stress injuries that can make work difficult. Workers should routinely take breaks from typing, make sure their monitor is the right distance away from the keyboard, use keyboards and computer setups that are ergonomic, and try to mix up their work with other tasks.
  • Construction work also often requires that workers perform the same tasks. These repeat tasks including using a jackhammer, hammering nails, digging in the ground, operating a forklift or a crane, cutting tree branches, or other tasks. The repeat work can develop into an RSI over time. Employers and workers should consider rotating tasks so the same muscles aren’t used all the time. Positioning and work techniques can also help reduce the risk of an RSI.
  • Retail work. Most retail workers are on the feet all day long which leads to fatigue. While they’re working, they are doing repeat tasks such as putting clothes on hangers or removing clothes, organizing the inventory, or operating a cash register.
  • Waitressing. Most waitress do the same physical tasks every day. They take order, carry food on trays, take the food off the trays, and unless they have someone to help – clean the dishes and the tables.
  • Standing or sitting in one position all day. These tasks can be bad for the heart and bad for your joints, muscles, ligaments, and tendons. People who sit in a on office all day long should make an effort to get up, stretch, and walk around. People who stand all day are putting pressure on their whole body. It helps for standing workers to take regular breaks where they can sit for a while.
  • Nursing. Nurses are constantly giving patients medications, moving and turning patients, checking blood pressure and doing other tasks on a repeat basis.
  • Machinist work. Constant working with hand tools can often cause carpal tunnel syndrome. 
  • Electrical work. Using screwdrivers and other tools in tight spaces can often cause carpal tunnel syndrome. 

Other jobs that are known to cause RSIs include delivery work, plumbing, agricultural work, firefighting, stocking shelves, janitors, maid services, and food processors. Professional athletes and professional musicians also do a lot or work that involves repetitive motions.

Treatment for an RSI

The earlier workers begin treatment for an RSI, the better. Doctors will conduct a range of tests depending on the body part that hurts and other factors. These tests include:

  • Nerve conduction studies
  • Electromyogram (EMG) which measures the electrical activity in muscles.
  • X-Rays and MRIs may be used

Treatments for an RSI include:

  • Surgery on the affected body part
  • Medications to reduce the inflammation and the pain
  • Braces and splints may help
  • Steroid injections
  • Certain types of exercises

The recovery process for surgical and non-surgical treatments can take months or even up to a year.

Can you claim workers’ compensation benefits for a repetitive stress injuries?

Unfortunately, other than Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS), or aggravation of pre-existing RTS injuries by a single traumatic event, Virginia does not recognize any other repetitive stress injuries as valid, compensable injuries or an occupational disease

In North Carolina, the legislature has carved out a few specific, repetitive stress injuries that are recognized as specific, valid, occupational diseases. 

In addition, in North Carolina, (not in Virginia) repetitive stress injuries can sometimes be classified as occupational diseases and be compensable IF they are proven to be caused by things that are characteristic and peculiar to the employment of the injured person and excluding ordinary diseases of life to which the public is equally exposed. An example is a cameraman who develops a rotator cuff injury over time. His job requires him to carry the heavy camera on his shoulder every day, and if the doctor supports it, this would be an example of a compensable RTS injury in North Carolina. 

One should proceed with caution, however. These types of North Carolina “ordinary disease of life” cases are notoriously difficult to prove. The doctor must not only say that the work caused the issue, but that it was NOT caused by exposure to repetitive stress outside of work. For some jobs, such as daily work with a jackhammer, the proof may be clear. For other jobs, such as computer work, an insurance company may argue that your off-duty typing or exposure to other, off duty activities caused the RSI. 

There are, however, some RTS diseases in North Carolina that are specifically listed by the legislature as an occupational disease. 

The RTS diseases that are specifically listed in North Carolina General Statute Sec. 97-53 as compensable occupational diseases are: 

  • Blisters due to use of tools or appliances in the employment
  • Bursitis due to intermittent pressure in the employment
  • Bone felon [a type of finger infection-ed.] due to constant or intermittent pressure in employment
  • Synovitis, caused by trauma in employment; 
  • Tenosynovitis, caused by trauma in employment 

Examples of repetitive stress injuries that might be compensable in North Carolina, (but not in Virginia) depending on the proof of facts, are:

  • Tendonitis
  • Shoulder and rotator cuff injuries 
  • Tennis elbow, more formally called epicondylitis
  • Muscle strains
  • Trigger finger
  • Many other types of RSIs

If you have a workers’ compensation claim because of a repetitive stress injury, Virginia and North Workers’ Compensation Attorney Joe Miller Esq., will explain your legal rights. In most cases, unless you fall into one of the exceptions listed above, there is a good chance you may not have a case. But if you have a valid work injury claim, he’ll work with your doctors to determine your full health condition.  In some cases, he may recommend that you see other doctors who are approved by the state workers’ compensation organizations. To learn if you have a claim, call attorney Joe Miller at 888-667-8295. or fill out my contact form to schedule an appointment. Joe Miller has been fighting for injured workers for more than 31 years.