Safety and OSHA News

Did injury leave worker without use of his hands?

An electric shock caused this worker to lose one finger and part of a thumb, and also caused nerve damage. For workers’ comp purposes, did this amount to loss of use of both of his hands? 

Kenneth Parks worked as a lineman for Ayers Line Construction Inc. in Pennsylvania. On Nov. 6, 2008, his bucket truck touched a hot wire, and he suffered an electric shock (7,200 volts of electricity) which entered through his left arm and exited through his left wrist, index finger and thumb, and his right wrist.

In October 2014, Parks filed for a review of his workers’ comp benefits, claiming he had suffered the loss of use of both his hands. Ayers denied the claim.

Parks had several surgeries to address his severe burns, including amputation of his left index finger and partial amputation of his left thumb, which was left in a bent position. He also had skin grafts to both wrists.

Parks said his symptoms included:

  • numbness and pain in his left and right hands
  • sensitivity in both wrists which causes him to feel pain shoot up and down his arms when his wrists are touched
  • inability to move his left wrist the way he used to
  • lack of strength or feeling in his left hand (Parks said he couldn’t use his left hand to do anything), and
  • finger numbness on his right hand without the range of motion he used to have.

There were a number of things Parks said he could no longer do:

  • tie grocery bags or shoes
  • pull up zippers
  • hold money in either hand
  • open a bag of chips
  • go fishing or hunting
  • throw a ball, or
  • play Legos with his child.

Parks was able to drive with his right hand but not for long distances. He operated turn signals with his pinky fingers which had normal function. He could brush his teeth, feed and wash himself, and sign his name. He drove his pick-up truck without modifications, and doctors didn’t say he couldn’t drive.

2 doctors, 2 opinions

His doctor, a plastic and hand surgeon, said Parks suffered injuries to the median nerve in both forearms and wrists. The doctor said Parks wasn’t able to use his left hand to work because he had no feeling in his fingers due to the nerve damage. For his right hand, the doctor said Parks had a lack of sensation and lost much of his grip strength.

Ayers had its own doctor, an orthopedic surgeon with a specialty in the hand, evaluate Parks. This doctor noted that there are three nerves that provide sensation to the hands and arms. Although Parks’ median nerves were damaged, the two other nerves in each hand remained intact.

This doctor said with the other two nerves functioning normally, Parks could grip a cup and type, although he’d have to watch his fingers because he would be unable to rely on tactile sensation to guide him. The doctor said lack of sensation didn’t equal lack of use, noting Parks could use a TV remote control with his right thumb. Parks’ ability to grip with his right hand would allow him to cook, clean, brush his teeth, drive a car, manipulate papers, and perform activities of daily living, according to the doctor. He wouldn’t be able to pick up or pull very heavy objects or forcefully grasp something.

The company’s doctor said, in his opinion, Parks hadn’t lost the use of either hand, with the exception of his left thumb and index finger.

Who has the final say?

A Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ) awarded Parks benefits for the loss of his left thumb and index finger. The judge accepted the testimony of the company doctor over Park’s physician, and denied benefits for the loss of function of his hands.

The WCJ said he was “persuaded by the testimony regarding the things [Parks] is able to do with his left pinky, including in tandem with the right pinky” and he was “further persuaded by the testimony of [Park’s] wife when she described [Parks] twisting the cap off a bottle of water by using his right pinky.”

Parks appealed. The Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Board upheld the WCJ’s decision. Parks then appealed to a state court.

In a nutshell, the case came down to this: In workers’ comp cases in Pennsylvania, the WCJ is “the ultimate fact finder and is the sole authority for determining the weight and credibility of the evidence.”

The state court didn’t find any error made by the WCJ in Parks’ case. Parks argued that the WCJ ignored other medical evidence that he had lost use of his hands.

But the state court said, “The fact that there is contrary medical evidence in the record simply does not equate to there being a lack of substantial evidence supporting the WCJ’s findings.”

The decision was upheld. Parks was awarded benefits for the loss of a finger and thumb but not for loss of use of both of his hands.

(Kenneth Parks v. Ayers Line Construction Inc., Commonwealth Court of PA, No. 1444 C.D. 2017, 8/16/18)

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