A new and costly trend is affecting workers’ compensation as more cases involve what’s known as “cumulative trauma” – or injuries that develop over an extended period of time from repetitive or continuous motions.
Often these injuries are due to excessive wear and tear on tendons, muscles and sensitive nerve tissue that can leave a worker unable to perform their job due to pain. They can arise in any profession where a worker performs the same motion over and over again.
Interestingly though, many of the new cases are being filed after employees are fired and they are primarily being filed in Southern California.
A report by the Workers’ Compensation Insurance Rating Bureau of California, the “Analysis of Changes in Indemnity Claim Frequency – January 2016 Updated Report,” found that cumulative trauma cases accounted for 18% of indemnity claims in 2014, up from less than 8% in 2005. The percentage has steadily increased over the past decade, the Rating Bureau found.
According to the agency, the growth in cumulative injury claims beginning in 2009 has been concentrated in claims involving more serious injuries and multiple injured body parts.
The WCIRB, in its “Cumulative Injury Claim Survey” in 2015, noted that the median time before a claim is reported is 79 days from the date of injury.
Also, according to the WCIRB, 40% of cumulative trauma claims are filed after a worker is terminated. Of those cases, a whopping 98% are litigated and 90% are in Southern California.
These post-termination cumulative injury claims were much more likely to involve multiple insurers, psychiatric injuries or multiple body parts, according to the Rating Bureau.
The Bureau also noted that insurers denied 63% of cumulative trauma claims as to all issues (multiple body parts, for example), and an additional 9% were denied in part.
Another sobering bit of news is that most cumulative injury claims involve attorney representation or multiple body parts, and these proportions have increased over the last several years, while the proportion involving a specific claim component, psychiatric injury or sleep disorder has declined.
Approximately 10% of claims that involve some time away from work are estimated to be reported late (up to 18 months after an insurance policy inception), compared to less than 2% for 2007. A significant proportion of these late-reported claims are for cumulative injury claims, which are approximately four times as likely to be reported late as non-cumulative injury claims.
According to the study:
• 30% of cumulative trauma claims involve multiple body parts
• 9.7% involve the lower back
• 6.2% involve body systems
• 5.7% involve the wrist
• 5.1% involve a shoulder
• 3.9 % involve multiple upper extremities
• 3.9% involve the hand
• 3.4% percent involve hand and wrist
• 2.6% involve knees
What you can do
Ergonomics – the science of adjusting the job to fit the body’s needs – can prevent cumulative trauma, also known as repetitive stress injuries (RSIs) in workplace safety parlance.
While in some cases redesigning the workplace is the best way to prevent RSIs, often many simple and inexpensive remedies will eliminate a significant portion of the problem.
For instance, providing knives with curved handles to poultry workers, so they won’t have to unnaturally bend their wrists; taking more frequent short breaks to rest muscles; providing lifting equipment, so nursing home workers won’t strain their backs lifting patients by themselves; or varying tasks to break up the routine of activities.
One large airline’s flight reservation facility, with 650 employees, had 250 cases of RSIs over a two-year period. An alarming 30% of these cases resulted in surgery.
The company took some simple steps to reduce the number of RSIs, including hiring an ergonomist to redesign the workstations, developing work/rest regimens, and eliminating electronic monitoring that included disciplinary action based on productivity, among other actions. Since then, the incidence of RSIs has dropped, underscoring the lesson that ergonomics can prevent RSIs.
A nationally known poultry producer instituted an ergonomics program and after two years its workers’ compensation claims had fallen to $1 million a year, compared to $4 million prior to the program.
In one facility, days missed due to cumulative trauma disorders declined from 552 to 24 per year, and days of restricted work went from 1,717 per year to just 48.