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Understanding Cumulative Trauma

Cumulative Trauma is an often overlooked issue in Workers' Compensation claims and without experience you may not file a claim on an important part of your case.  Many people without being aware of it get led down the garden path by their employer.  They are discouraged from filing very basic, provable work injuries.  I have seen countless situations where it was obvious the employee suffered “cumulative trauma” on the job and was told, “Gee that is not work related, you need to file for State Disability and use your own insurance—good luck.”  Some injuries are easy to spot, normally referred to as a specific injury.  A specific injury usually results from, you guessed it, a specific event.  Someone slips on black ice at work and suffers a shoulder injury.  Or a lifting incident results in a spine injury.

The more difficult claims to spot involve cumulative trauma aka “repetitive stress injury.”  It is a recognized legal theory of causation for workers’ compensation cases right here in the State of California (Labor Code section 3208.1).  For example, you have someone who does a lot of repetitive hand movements such as a clerk in a grocery store, or an office person working on their computer daily or working at some crazy angle for hours on end.  One day, the body rebels and they discover a strange tingling in their hand accompanied by significant numbing.  They start having problems holding objects and turning the door knob when they get home at night.  This is classic carpal tunnel syndrome.  The same thing can happen to your spine as well as joints in your hips and your lower extremities.  One day, a minor activity at work becomes the proverbial “straw that breaks the camel’s back” and a significant work place injury occurs.

Here are some common things that doctors say that should raise a red flag:

  • Edema, tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, cubital tunnel syndrome, thoracic outlet syndrome, De Quervain’s syndrome, stenosing  tenosynovitis, intersection syndrome, golfer’s elbow or medial epicondylitis, tennis elbow or lateral epicondylitis, reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome (CPRS), radial tunnel syndrome and focal dystonia.

Then there are the cases of occupational disease or exposure.  A nurse works for years snapping latex gloves on and off their hands fifty times a day.  One day the hands get red, chapped and sore and infections develop.  This latex allergy is a cumulative trauma and it can be a severely debilitating condition.

What about a painter that works a power sprayer day in and day out or someone who is exposed to dust and fumes.  They all can potentially add up, causing significant respiratory problems over the years or worse, cancer.

Yes, filing a workers’ compensation claim is a certifiable pain in the rear.  The hesitancy to file is understandable, but the consequences of not protecting yourself can be significant.  Many employers, wary of yet another new comp claim simply discourage their employees from reporting their condition as industrial.  As noted above, they encourage them to go on State Disability and use their private insurance the problem with this approach occurs if you lose your job and subsequently your medical insurance.  No medical treatment in these days is a real problem, unless you can find some governmental program or a family member’s coverage to treat under.  Many governmental programs are income and asset dependent.   If you have too many assets, or a spouse that is earning an income for the family, you could be out of luck. 

The workers’ compensation system operates as a social safety net.  If you fail to timely claim benefits, you also lose out on valuable temporary disability rights (money while you are recovering), permanent disability (payment for lost earning capacity) and perhaps a Job Displacement Voucher (money to be used for retraining into a new field).  Thousands and thousands of dollars of help lost, due to misinformation or ignorance.  The trick is to understand the connection between work activities and injury and not lose your rights. 


Thomas Ledgerwood
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Proprietor Ledgerwood Law Group