Work-related lower back injuries can be debilitating. Learn how to file your back injury claim for compensation, and what to expect from the insurance company.
Back injuries affect more than 600,000 American workers annually, to the tune of more than $50 billion each year.¹
With an aging workforce and increasing medical costs, the frequency and economic impact of on-the-job back injuries will continue to rise. Lower back injuries are extremely common and debilitating for workers.
Workers’ compensation claims in most states are handled by insurance companies, through policies purchased by your employer.
You may work for a great company with terrific management, but once you file your workers’ comp claim the insurance company will be in control.
If you are severely injured, or your injury happened because of your employer’s gross negligence, immediately contact an experienced personal injury attorney for a free consultation to discuss your case.
Insurance companies exist to make money for the insurance company, not to pay claimants like you. Here’s what you need to know.
Causes of Back Pain and Work Injuries
Most workplace back injuries are the result of overextension or twisting of the spine from heavy lifting, pulling, pushing, or poor posture while sitting for prolonged periods.
Severe and potentially permanent injuries can come from falls from high places at work or even work-related car accidents.
Back injuries at work are often painful and require extended treatment and recovery periods.
Common workplace back injuries include:
- Lower back strain
- Bulging, herniated, and slipped discs
- Fractured vertebrae
- Pinched nerves
- Spinal cord damage
Thousands of Workers Suffer Lifting Injuries
Each year, thousands of workers’ file compensation claims because of lifting injuries. There are no federal regulations governing workplace lifting requirements, so individual employers are responsible for developing their own guidelines to protect workers from a lower back injury.
To help employers create guidelines to protect workers while lifting, the National Institute for Occupational Safety created a Lifting Equation Handbook.
The equation considers several factors to evaluate workplace lifting such as the worker’s body and hand positions, load weights, and the duration and frequency of lifting tasks.
Workplace lifting injuries occur from sudden trauma or a cumulative strain on the worker’s muscles, tendons or ligaments over time. The majority of lifting injuries affect the lower back, defined as the lumbar region.
Why Your Back Hurts
Back pain from a workplace injury can have several causes. It can come from a single act, like lifting a box that’s too heavy, or from a gradual, persistent strain on back muscles, ligaments, and the disks protecting your vertebrae.
Repetitive motions, such as lifting, pulling, pushing, loading, and even sitting improperly can eventually cause your back to weaken or become strained.
Disks: The spinal column is composed of twenty-four moving vertebrae and nine fixed in place. In between each moving vertebra is a fluid-filled pouch called a disk. Disks act as shock absorbers, separating and cushioning each vertebra.
A back injury can cause one or more disks to protrude or herniate. Without the cushioning disks, vertebrae rub against each other, and spinal nerves become inflamed, causing pain.
Ligaments: Bands of dense tissue called ligaments surround your spine to keep the spinal column in place while allowing it to bend and twist.
When the spine is severely overextended, the ligaments can stretch out of place or tear, causing severe pain.
Muscles: Your back has its share of muscles extending up and down the spinal column on both sides of the vertebrae.
Back muscles help with lifting, pulling or pushing heavy loads. Like muscles anywhere in the body, overextension, sprains, and tears can happen.
Spinal Cord: The spinal column surrounds and protects the spinal cord. The spinal cord has thousands of nerve endings that send messages between the brain and body.
A spinal cord injury can be physically devastating and may lead to paralysis or even death.
Back pain can be acute or chronic:
- Acute pain comes on quickly but lessens within three to six weeks. While acute back pain can be excruciating, it is temporary.
- Chronic pain continues for more than six weeks. Chronic back pain can be present for years or become permanently disabling.
Treatment for Back Pain
Treatment for back injuries at work ranges from mild (applying hot and cold compresses), to extensive (surgery as a last resort). Your physician may recommend drugs to reduce pain and inflammation, such as acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen, or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS).
To control severe pain, you may be prescribed narcotic painkillers, such as Vicodin, Percodan, or other powerful medications. Narcotic pain medications can have unpleasant side effects and must be managed carefully due to the high risk of opioid addiction for back pain sufferers.
Additional treatment can include chiropractic care, massage, ultrasound therapy, and whirlpools.
Most injured employees want to get back to work as soon as possible. Surviving on partial wages can be stressful and frustrating; however, failing to follow your prescribed course of treatment, or returning to work before you’re ready can delay your recovery.
What to Do After a Back Injury at Work
Injured workers are entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. Those benefits pay for your medical and therapy bills, out-of-pocket expenses, costs of transportation to and from treatment, and approximately two-thirds of your lost wages.
Get Immediate Medical Treatment
If you’re stricken with a sudden back injury, seek medical treatment immediately. This is not the time to show how tough you are.
If your supervisor wants to call an ambulance or send you to the company nurse, don’t argue. You may have serious damage to your back that will be made worse by continued activity.
Don’t wait to see if your back will feel better in a few days. The insurance company will use any delay in seeking medical treatment against you and may even deny your claim by arguing the injury didn’t happen on the job.
Report the Incident Promptly and in Detail
The workers’ comp process begins when you first report your injury to your employer or designated supervisor. If you’re seriously injured and hospitalized, you may not be able to complete any accident paperwork until you’re stable.
Be specific when describing your back injury. Some states, like Virginia, have workers’ compensation standards that exclude general back injuries or injuries from repetitive motion. If you report that you were lifting boxes all week and now your back is killing you, your claim may not be covered.
Regardless of your state’s workers’ comp laws, try to be as specific as possible:
“I was lifting a box of parts into the delivery truck right after lunch on Tuesday when I felt something pop and tear in my back on the left side near my belt line. It immediately hurt so bad I couldn’t stand up straight and felt sick to my stomach.”
Beware of Pre-Existing Conditions
It’s important to repeat the circumstances of your work injury to every medical provider who examines you. Don’t assume your medical records already have the latest information.
Details of the circumstances around your injury are especially important if you have any pre-existing conditions that affect your spine, as many workers do. If you know about a pre-existing condition, don’t hide it.
However, don’t be surprised to learn after your injury that you’ve got some age-related deterioration in your back.
Make sure your doctors know your injury occurred at work, and that you didn’t have acute symptoms before the work-related activity that caused your injury.
What to Expect from Workers’ Comp Insurance
After reporting your injury, you’ll get a list of company-approved physicians from your employer or the workers’ comp insurance representative assigned to your case. You’ll have to be evaluated by an approved care provider.
If your doctor has determined you’ve reached Maximum Medical Improvement, meaning your injury won’t get better with further treatment, or you’re rated with some level of disability, the insurance company will likely require you to undergo an Independent Medical Exam (IME).
Before you undergo an IME, find out the truth about worker’s compensation doctors and how to be prepared for your medical examination.
Definition of Workers’ Comp Disability Categories
- Temporary Total Disability completely prevents you from working for a limited amount of time.
- Temporary Partial Disability prevents you from doing some, but not all, of your job duties for a limited amount of time.
- Permanent Total Disability prevents you from ever returning to work, whether for your current employer or another employer.
- Permanent Partial Disability is a permanent injury that partially impairs your ability to work.
Workers’ compensation benefits will pay all your injury-related treatment and therapy costs, a portion of your lost wages, and if you’re permanently disabled by your back injury, you may be eligible for a settlement to cover future lost earnings.
Workers’ comp will not cover your full wages, and there is no monetary recovery for pain and suffering.
With a workers’ compensation claim, you won’t have to prove your employer was at fault for your injury, just that you were injured on the job. The trade-off is that in most cases you are blocked from filing a lawsuit against your employer.
However, there are circumstances when you can bring a third-party injury claim against a negligent employer.
Filing a Third-party Lawsuit Against Your Employer
Employers have a legal duty of care to protect their employees from undue harm and physical injury in the workplace. The workplace can include not only your employer’s primary place of business, but also construction sites, customer business locations, storage facilities, or anywhere you do your job.
Normally, an injured employee is limited by law to filing a workers’ compensation claim. Still, there are certain conditions where it’s possible to file a separate negligence lawsuit against an employer.
Showing that an employer is negligent is not enough for a successful third-party lawsuit. The proof must show that the negligence rose to a level of “gross negligence,” or that the employer displayed a “wanton disregard for the worker’s safety.”
Employers must take reasonable actions to ensure workers’ safety and keep the workplace free from dangerous conditions, such as removing spilled liquids, snow, ice and debris from the work area.
Safety measures can include employer-provided training in proper lifting techniques. Where necessary, employers should provide their workers with protective equipment, back braces, lifting belts and lifting mechanisms.
A successful third-party lawsuit against your employer can provide significantly more compensation for a severe injury.
Unlike workers’ compensation claims, compensation awarded under a third-party lawsuit can include payment of all medical, chiropractic and therapy bills, all injury-related out-of-pocket expenses, all lost wages, and payment for pain and suffering. In especially severe cases, you can also win punitive damages for your injury.
Example: Employer Knowingly Put Worker in Danger
Susan worked for a local fast food restaurant. As part of her job, she had to carry sacks of frozen potatoes weighing twenty-five pounds from the restaurant’s walk-in freezer to the cooking area. The potato sacks were stored on a freezer shelf fifteen feet above the floor, and Susan had to climb up a ladder to get them.
Unknown to Susan, three previous employees had been injured by falling from the ladder while descending with the potato sacks.
The shifting weight of the potatoes combined with icy ladder steps caused all three workers’ injuries. The owner was aware of the danger and still directed Susan to climb the ladder to get the potatoes.
One afternoon, Susan was carrying a sack of potatoes down the ladder when she slipped on the icy ladder steps and fell ten feet to the floor. She suffered serious injuries to her back, head, and neck.
Susan retained an attorney and filed a third-party claim against her employer.
Susan’s attorney argued that her employer’s actions were far worse than mere negligence and rose to a level of gross negligence and a wanton disregard for her safety. The court agreed and found in favor of Susan.
In addition, because evidence showed the employer was aware of injuries to three other workers from falling off the icy ladder, the court also awarded punitive damages.
Reimbursing Workers’ Compensation
Third-party lawsuits can take months or years before they finally settle or go to trial. In the meantime, workers’ compensation benefits may pay your medical bills and expenses.
By law, when an injured employee receives a settlement or court award for those same injuries, the workers’ comp insurance company is entitled to reimbursement for previously paid medical and wage benefits. The legal term for insurance reimbursement is “subrogation.”
Your health care provider or Medicaid may also be entitled to recover expenses previously paid on your behalf. Your attorney may be able to negotiate a reduction to any subrogation claims against your settlement.
If you’re severely injured or considering a third-party negligence claim against your employer, you’ll need the skills of an experienced personal injury attorney to recover the compensation you deserve for your lost wages, pain and suffering.
Speak to a personal injury attorney who specializes in workplace injury cases. It costs nothing for the initial consultation with a reputable attorney. Don’t wait to find out what a good attorney can do for you.
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Back Injuries at Work Questions & Answers
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