Safety and OSHA News

Can seasonal employee get workers’ comp for carpal tunnel?

Soon, if not already, thousands of people in the U.S. will enter the workforce or add part-time jobs during the holiday season. If seasonal employees develop carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), are they covered by workers’ comp? 

From warehouse pickers to retail gift wrappers (not to mention snow shovelers), many winter seasonal jobs involve repetitive motion that can lead to musculoskeletal disorders such as carpal tunnel.

George Woods worked for The W L Harper Co. in Arkansas for six years as a seasonal employee. His periods of consecutive employment ranged from four to nine months. Woods was a concrete finisher which was hand-intensive and required repetitive motions.

On July 13, 2013, Woods said he felt sharp pain in both his hands while finishing concrete. He told his supervisor and that night went to the ER due to pain, numbness and swelling in his hands. At a point soon after the ER visit, Woods applied for workers’ comp.

Woods admitted to having trouble with his hands before that, but he said his medical visits before that were for cramping, not pain or tingling.

Medical records showed in November 2012 he visited a doctor complaining of pain in his legs, both wrists and his back. Included in the doctor’s diagnosis: bi-lateral carpal tunnel syndrome. He was also seen by the doctor for the same problem in February 2013 with the same diagnosis noted in his records.

The Harper Co. opposed Woods’ comp request. An administrative law judge found Woods had proven that he suffered bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, a compensable injury. The ALJ said Woods was entitled to medical benefits and temporary total disability. The Arkansas Workers’ Compensation Commission upheld the decision. The Harper Co. appealed to a state court.

Is gradual-onset injury work-related?

The Harper Co. argued that substantial evidence didn’t support the finding that Woods sustained a compensable, gradual-onset injury (bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome).

An employee seeking workers’ comp benefits in Arkansas for a gradual-onset injury must prove the injury:

  • arose out of and in the course of employment
  • caused internal or external physical harm to the body that required medical services or resulted in disability or death, and
  • was a major cause of the disability or need for treatment.

The only issue in this case was whether Woods’ carpal tunnel was pre-existing and not caused mostly by his work.

Woods testified – and no one disputed – that his concrete finishing work was “meticulous, hand-intensive and repetitive.” Woods said during the six years before his July 2013 ER visit, he hadn’t worked for another company. When he wasn’t working seasonally for The Harper Co., he received unemployment benefits.

Even though Woods’ bilateral carpal tunnel existed before July 2013, there was no evidence showing it existed before his employment with The Harper Co.

Given those facts, the state appeals court said it agreed with the prior ruling that there was substantial evidence to support the finding that Woods suffered a compensable injury.

When The Harper Co. called Woods’ credibility into question, the court noted that issues of witness credibility are up to the Workers’ Compensation Commission. “If the Commission’s conclusions are not unreasonable, we must affirm,” the court wrote.

Woods’ award of workers’ comp benefits for carpal tunnel was upheld. Seasonal employees qualify for workers’ comp coverage the same as year-round employees.

(The W L Harper Company v. George T. Woods, Arkansas Court of Appeals Div. III, No. CV-16-150, 9/21/16)

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