Ignored Ergonomics: Employer Liability for Injuries

Workplace ergonomics has become a hot topic over the last decade. Repetitive motion injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, bursitis and other musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are on the rise, as are workers' compensation claims and lawsuits revolving around these work-related injuries. Even the federal government has gotten in on the act, with a renewed focus on ergonomics being asserted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Now, more than ever, you have legal rights to recover for ergonomic injuries you sustain at work.

What are Ergonomic Injuries?

Ergonomic injuries are injuries sustained as a result of repetitive motion under less-than-optimal workplace conditions. Ergonomic injuries can result from something as simple as poor computer positioning, or defective machinery or office furniture. Or, if your job requires repetitive motion, and the equipment you are using is misaligned, ergonomic injuries can occur.

Most employers have taken some steps toward reducing ergonomic injuries. Whether it is the availability of foot and hand rests for secretaries, or support belts and padding for industrial workers, prevention is often a matter of taking some very basic proactive steps. Still, ergonomic injuries persist.

What are an Employer's Responsibilities?

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers are charged with a general duty to "provide employment and a place of employment, which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm." This is commonly known as the "general duty clause."

It means that your employer has a legal obligation to create a workplace and job that is reasonably free from any hazard that is causing (or could cause) injuries. While the general duty clause has historically been used to combat more serious workplace violations, OSHA now has a stated policy that the general duty clause applies to ergonomic conditions as well.

Enforcement and inspection for ergonomic hazards, however, are sporadic. Instead, OSHA is focusing on arming your employer with information, research and guidelines that will allow them to safeguard your work environment and reduce the potential for repetitive motion injuries or MSDs.

Employer Liability and Workers' Compensation

In nearly every state, an employee's right to recovery for ergonomic injuries falls under the umbrella of theworkers' compensation system. Workers' compensation is a statutory scheme that requires employers to either carry insurance against workplace injuries, or pay into a general state fund used for the same purposes.

Because workers' compensation is normally an exclusive remedy, you will likely not be able to file a lawsuit for your ergonomic injury. Workers' compensation is a no-fault system, so whether or not your employer bears legal liability for your injury, you will be compensated through your state's workers' compensation agency (or directly through your employer's insurance carrier). Only if your claim for workers' compensation benefits is denied, or if you are alleging that your employer intentionally created conditions that caused your ergonomic injuries, may you file suit that won't be at risk of immediate dismissal.

Proving That Your Injuries are Work-Related

As discussed above, work-related injuries caused by improper ergonomics are usually covered under workers' compensation. But in some cases, you may have difficulty establishing that your injuries are work-related -- in other words, that they were not pre-existing or attributable to some cause apart from your job. This is especially true when it comes to carpal tunnel syndrome.

Remember that, even in a workers' compensation claim where you don't need to show that your employer (or anyone else) was to blame, you still have the burden of establishing that the injury you're seeking compensation for was caused by your job duties.

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