For a moment, think of some potential causes of workplace injuries that would qualify for workers’ comp benefits. We bet opening a door wasn’t high on your list — in fact, it probably didn’t make your list at all.
But that didn’t stop a claim from being filed for just that in New York.
Bariza Laib was a case manager for the State Insurance Fund. Laib says she injured her right shoulder and elbow by repeatedly closing and pulling open the heavy front door of a building in which she worked for five years. The door is made of thick metal and glass with a tight spring that was particularly difficult to open and close on windy days. She complained to security guards in the building lobby about the problem.
Laib says she had to use the door four to six times a day. After she started having problems with her shoulder, she asked her supervisor if she could use the handicapped-accessible door and gave him a note from her doctor supporting the request.
Later, Laib found out she needed surgery on her shoulder. A medical report indicated a “causal relationship” between her injuries and her work. Laib applied for workers’ comp benefits which were denied by her employer.
An independent medical exam confirmed the diagnosis of the right shoulder injury and that surgery was a reasonable request.
A workers’ comp law judge issued a decision that Laib had sustained an injury in the course of her employment as a result of repetitive trauma and awarded her benefits. The Workers’ Compensation Board affirmed the judge’s ruling. Her employer appealed.
Injuries that accrue over time
The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court heard the appeal.
The court noted that previous case law in New York says:
“While an accidental injury must arise from unusual environmental conditions or events assignable to something extraordinary, it need not result suddenly or from the immediate application of some external force but may accrue gradually over a reasonably definite period of time.”
Laib’s employer argued that there was a lack of an unusual or extraordinary condition or event that could have caused her injury.
But the court disagreed:
“In our view, being forced to negotiate heavy metal and glass doors connected to a tight spring in order to gain access to or leave your office building is not the natural and unavoidable result of employment as an office worker.”
The employer also argued that Laib’s claim about the door was contradicted by the testimony of her supervisor and an investigator that they had no problems operating the door. The court said the investigator’s report about watching random people exiting and entering the building for 15-20 minutes failed to take into account the size of the people using the door.
For those reasons, the court upheld the previous decisions awarding Laib workers’ comp benefits for shoulder surgery for an injury caused by opening and closing the heavy metal and glass door.
Costly repetitive motions
Workplace injuries are often thought of as something that results from a sudden event like a fall or being struck by something.
Of course, there’s another type: repetitive stress injuries (RSIs). Specific risk factors that can cause RSIs include repetitive motion, force, awkward posture, heavy lifting or a combination of these factors.
Ergonomics, the science of adjusting the job to fit the body’s needs, can prevent RSIs. Ergonomic solutions need not be expensive or complicated. Simple and inexpensive remedies will eliminate a significant portion of the problem.
While this case involving the heavy door isn’t exactly typical, it does contain a useful reminder. When employees complain that equipment is causing them to have to strain to perform their jobs, it’s a good idea to investigate whether a risk factor exists. Who knows how this case could have ended if the guards had passed along the complaint about the door to the Facilities department. After all, the best way to avoid workers’ comp costs is to prevent injuries in the first place.
What do you think about this ruling? Let us know in the comments below.
(Laib v. State Insurance Fund, NY Supreme Court Appellate Division, No. 513738, 12/13/12)