Repetitive stress injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome are becoming increasingly common as more and more workers' main tools are a keyboard and mouse. While your job might be responsible for this sort of injury, you probably can't sue your employer over carpal tunnel syndrome. Workers' compensation laws generally bar workers from pursuing a lawsuit against their employer for workplace injuries.
If you suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome caused by your work, it's important that you understand your state's workers' compensation insurance system. Workers' compensation might be your only means of receiving compensation for your work-related injury.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is a condition caused by compression of the median nerve and the tendons that flex your fingers as they travel through the "carpal tunnel" in your wrist. This tunnel is narrow, so even a small amount of swelling can compress the nerve and tendons. This compression can cause pain, weakness, and numbness in the hand and wrist.
Although carpal tunnel syndrome can result from a confluence of factors—including age, gender, weight, trauma, arthritis, disease, pregnancy, and diabetes—it can also be caused by overuse or repetitive movements of the hand and wrist.
Common workplace-based examples of repetitive tasks include:
In rare cases, carpal tunnel syndrome can result even when a person performs a task for a relatively short period of time.
Treating carpal tunnel syndrome sometimes requires surgery. The surgical procedure is known as carpal tunnel release, where the surgeon cuts through the ligament to make more space for the median nerve and tendons. Nonsurgical remedies include rest, splinting, diuretics, and steroid injections.
If you suffer a work-related injury, you will most likely be entitled to workers' compensation benefits. But there are a few arguments you may run in to if you apply for benefits based on carpal tunnel or other repetitive stress injuries.
One of the most frequently debated issues with respect to carpal tunnel syndrome is whether it was caused by a workplace injury or by a non-work-related factor. The employee will have the burden of proving the injury was work-related.
A worker might hold a second job that requires repetitive movements, or outside of work they may be an avid tennis player. In both of those instances, it could be argued that carpal tunnel syndrome developed because of those factors. Or if the employee has a health condition such as arthritis or diabetes, the employer's insurance company might argue the injury didn't occur while working for that particular employer.
Some states treat carpal tunnel syndrome as a workplace "accident," while others consider it an "occupational disease". The distinction matters because it dictates what you have to prove in order to qualify for workers' compensation benefits.
If your state's laws mandate that the only compensable disabilities are those that arise from an accident, then the strength of your case will depend upon how terms such as "accident" and "injury" are defined in your jurisdiction. For example, if carpal tunnel syndrome is characterized as an "accident", you may have to show the injury was caused suddenly and violently.
The modern approach is to include "occupational diseases" as a compensable injury in the workers' compensation scheme. If your state characterizes carpal tunnel syndrome as an "occupational disease", you will have to show that as an employee you suffered a greater exposure to the disease than did the general public.
How carpal tunnel syndrome is characterized can affect your burden of proof. For example, if compensable as an occupational disease, you may have to prove by clear and convincing evidence (a high standard) that the injury arose out of and in the course of employment. If, however, carpal tunnel syndrome is compensable as an accident, then the lower "preponderance of the evidence" standard may be required.
If you've developed carpal tunnel syndrome wholly or partially because of your job, contact an experienced workers' compensation attorney to discuss your options. Most attorneys who practice workers' comp law only charge a fee if you win your case, so there's nothing to lose.