Safety and OSHA News

Did worker properly inform company about injury?

A state workers’ compensation law requires employees to give proper notice of a workplace injury to employers to receive benefits. The question in this case: Did a series of communications between employee and employer add up to proper notice?

Anne Marie Morack worked for Gentex Corp. in Carbondale, PA for 45 years. She inspected the quality of helmets manufactured at the plant, which required her to lift nine pounds hundreds of times per day.

From 2003 to 2005, Morack suffered swelling and pain in her hands and her fingers would become stuck in certain positions.

On Jan. 17, 2005, Morack said the pain in her hands had become too much, and she informed her supervisor she could no longer tolerate it. She left work and saw a doctor the same day.

The doctor gave her a note excusing her from work which she delivered to Gentex that day.

Morack telephoned the company for the next five days to update Gentex on her condition, each day indicating she couldn’t work because of swelling in her hands.

Eventually, a rheumatologist diagnosed her with bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, a right wrist cartilage tear and tendinitis in various fingers that were all work-related.

On March 24, 2005, the doctor released Morack to return to work with limitations of no repetitive lifting of more than one pound or standing for more than 45 minutes. Gentex didn’t have such a position, so Morack was let go.

When she found out her injuries were work-related, Morack immediately called Gentex’s human resources manager but was unable to reach her. Morack says she left many messages for HR but was never able to speak to anyone in the department.

Although the two sides disagree about details of Morack’s contact with HR, they agree Morack left at least one voice message for the HR manager in which she said she had “work-related problems.”

Morack was awarded benefits by a workers’ comp judge. The company appealed to the workers’ comp board which upheld the judge’s decision. Then the company appealed to a state court.

Gentex argued that Morack failed to properly notify it about her work-related injuries, including failing to adequately describe them. The court agreed Morack failed to adequately describe her injuries.

The case finally went to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

That court ruled Morack should receive workers’ comp benefits. The judges noted that on the first day Morack left work, she said it was because of hand pain. That, combined with her phone call to the HR Manager to report that her doctor said the injuries were work-related was enough for the court.

“While this scenario of providing notice was not ‘letter perfect,'” the court wrote in its opinion, “the humanitarian purpose of the [Workers’ Comp] Act directs that ‘a meritorious claim ought not, if possible, be defeated for technical reasons.'”

The court said the employee doesn’t have to give all the necessary information to the employer at one time. It said no one communication should be considered “in isolation.”

What do you think about the court’s ruling? Let us know in the Comments Box below.

(Gentex Corp. v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, Supreme Court of PA, No. 33 MAP 2010, 7/20/2011)

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Comments

  1. The case as described here is ludicrous. The worker obviously did provide notice once treatment was obtained. But there’s a bigger picture here that’s apparently not being explored: From 2003 to 2005 it appears that this worker was subject to increasing pain and problems. At any point did she report (or was the employer somehow aware of) any of that, or was the employer’s first notice when she decided “the pain in her hands had become too much” and asked for medical treatment? If the employer was aware well before the treatment that the employee was experiencing a problem absolutely they were properly notified and this case is, if anything, even more clearly compensable. But if not, then that changes the game entirely in my eyes.

    With some types of long-term illness, such as repetetive motion cases like this one, the damage occurs over a long stretch of time and with proper intervention can be remedied well before a critical stage is reached and medical treatment is needed. But that requires awareness of the situation by the employer so that action can be taken, and in certain cases like this the growing problem may not be obvious to anyone other than the affected employee. There needs to be a partnership between employers and employees when it comes ot workplace H&S, and all need to share in the responsibility of identifying possible issues. A system that places total responsibility and fianancial accountability on only one of the involved parties (the employer) is unfair.

    In this instance, if the employer was never put on notice even once during the 2-year stretch that the employee was experiencing a problem then I firmly belive that they were NOT properly notified – although for different reasons than were apparently being considered in the judicial processes.

  2. sheralroh says:

    I agree with the Court giving benefits to this long term employee. Normally, I think the courts get carried away granting benefits, but it appears that she did notify the company of her problem.. that should have been enough. I think the company was splitting hairs trying to say it hadn’t received sufficient notification of the injury…. I say BS to that. There is no way, you can do the same task every day multiplied hundreds of times per day and not suffer from a MSD.

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