Each year, thousands of workers’ compensation claims are filed because of lifting injuries. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states, “…lifting, placing, carrying, holding and lowering [materials] are the principal cause of compensable work injuries.” There are no federal regulations governing workplace lifting requirements, so individual employers are responsible for developing their own guidelines to protect workers from injury.
To help employers create guidelines to protect workers while lifting, the National Institute for Occupational Safety (NIOSH) created a “lifting equation.” The equation uses six criteria to determine the limits for safe lifting:
- weight of the object and duration of the lift;
- measuring the placement of the worker’s hands before and during the lift;
- distance traveled during the lift;
- twisting motions used by the worker;
- number of lifts performed by the worker in a designated time; and
- type of coupling or gripping used during the lift.
Workplace lifting injuries occur from sudden trauma or a cumulative strain of the worker’s muscles, tendons or ligaments over an extended period of time. The majority of lifting injuries affect the lumbar region of the back.
Back injuries can be debilitating. Recovery from torn muscles, slipped or herniated disks, and fractured vertebrae can take weeks to months. In some cases, the injury requires surgery or results in partial or permanent paralysis. The upper back, neck, shoulders, arms, wrists, and hands are also susceptible to injuries from lifting. Additionally, heavy lifting can cause inguinal hernias.
Workers’ Compensation for Lifting Injuries
If you’ve been in a work-related lifting accident, you have the right to file a workers’ compensation claim. Workers’ comp usually pays medical, chiropractic, and physical therapy bills, out-of-pocket expenses (medications, crutches, etc.), and two-thirds of lost wages. Workers’ comp benefits do not include payment for pain and suffering.
Under state and federal law, receiving workers’ comp benefits does not depend on proving your employer was negligent. The only requirement for filing a claim is that you’ve been injured at work.
You must report your injury to your employer as soon as possible after your lifting accident. To begin the workers’ compensation process, you complete a “first report of injury” form. On the form, you explain the nature of your injury and its cause.
If you need further medical treatment, ask your employer for a list of company-approved physicians. You choose one doctor from this list to be your “primary treating physician.” He makes an initial diagnosis based on his evaluation, diagnostic tests, and your description of your injury. Your primary may also refer you to a specialist, such as an orthopedist, if necessary.
When your primary physician determines you’ve reached a level of maximum medical improvement (MMI), he’ll send a report to your employer and the workers’ comp insurance company. He’ll also complete a return to work form. This tells your employer if you can return to your previous job, or if you are temporarily or permanently disabled. If you have a disability, you may receive a cash settlement in addition to other worker’s comp benefits.
Third-party Claims Against Employers
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; however, there are certain conditions where it’s possible to file a separate negligence claim against an employer. A successful third party claim may entitle an injured worker to additional compensation.
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 manual lifting techniques. Where necessary, employers should provide their workers with protective equipment, back braces, lifting belts and lifting mechanisms.
Damages awarded under a third party claim 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, punitive damages may also be awarded.
Evidence of Negligence
Showing that an employer is negligent is not enough to sustain a successful third party claim. 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.”
Example: Herniated back
Jake worked for a national building supply outlet. His primary duties were lifting dry wall, load-bearing beams, and roofing materials from inventory and loading them into customer vehicles. During his training, Jake was issued a safety harness (lifting belt) to wear around his waist while lifting. Soon after, an unknown employee borrowed Jake’s harness and never returned it.
Jake was concerned about being injured while lifting heavy inventory, and he reported his missing safety harness to his supervisor. The supervisor promised him a replacement, but Jake never received one. One day while loading beams into a customer’s vehicle, Jake felt a sudden sharp pain in his back.
He was unable to straighten out and could barely walk. Jake was transported by ambulance to the local hospital. An MRI revealed two herniated disks in the lumbar region of his back. He would require extensive treatment and a long recovery period.
Jake sought legal advice from several personal injury attorneys. After hearing all the facts, each attorney told Jake his case just didn’t have enough of a basis for a third-party claim. Although there was no doubt that his employer’s failure to provide a safety harness constituted negligence, it did not rise to a level of gross negligence or a wanton disregard for Jake’s safety. As a result, Jake’s only recourse was his workers’ compensation claim.
Example: Fall off a ladder
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 shelf fifteen feet above the floor, and Susan had to climb up a ladder to get them.
Unknown to Susan, three previous employees had fallen from the ladder and been injured while descending with the potato sacks. The shifting weight of the potatoes combined with icy ladder stairs was the primary cause of 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 steps and fell ten feet to the floor. She sustained serious injuries to her back, head and neck. Susan retained an attorney and filed a third-party claim against her employer.
Susan’s attorneys contended her employer’s actions surpassed 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. Also, because evidence showed the employer was aware three other workers were injured on the 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 for medical bills and expenses. By law, when an injured employee receives a settlement or court award for those same injuries, he must reimburse the workers’ comp insurance company for its payments on his behalf.
The injured worker’s third-party award generally is higher than the worker’s comp payments. The difference between the amount workers’ comp paid, and what he receives from the third-party settlement or court award, is his to keep.
The Role of Attorneys
Unless your lifting injury results in a disability, you don’t need an attorney’s assistance with your workers’ comp claim. If you are disabled from the injury however, you should consult with a workers’ comp attorney before signing any documents or otherwise resolving your claim.
You must retain an attorney if you’re considering a third-party negligence claim against your employer. Only an experienced personal injury attorney has the knowledge and expertise required to handle complex legal actions.
Most workers’ compensation and personal injury attorneys don’t charge for initial office consultations. If an attorney accepts your case, you won’t have to pay any legal fees in advance. You pay a percentage of your award if and when your attorney settles or wins your case at trial.
Waitress Injures Back
This case of a waitress suffering a work injury demonstrates some specifics about workers’ comp coverage. Occasionally, these settlements can come in lump-sum cash offers or can include ongoing medical treatment.
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