The State Department of Labor and Industries reported in early January (as covered in the P-I, Jan. 9) that it paid $2.7 billion in worker’s comp benefits to people with back and arm injuries suffered on the job from 1989 through 1996. Two-thirds of the back injury claims were due to repetitive motion stress, and only one-third to heavy-lifting. All repetitive-motion injuries (arm, back, wrist, etc.) accounted for over one-third of all damages paid out over that same time period.

This report is the first detailed worker’s comp study of repetitive-motion injuries in the country. Yet, it’s far from comprehensive; to gauge the true impact, we would also have to count employees of companies that are self-insured. Several large Washington manufacturers take out private worker’s comp insurance in order to shop around for better (cheaper) rates and to limit the payouts made to injured employees. Companies that self-insure also have more control over which doctors their employees can see (doctors that are unwilling to diagnose repetitive-motion injuries, for example). The Boeing Co., which is rumored to have high levels of job-related injuries and has been sued by chemically-injured employees, is self-insured.

In addition, many companies encourage (or intimidate) workers into using the company’s or the worker’s own health insurance plans to pay for treatment of on-the-job injuries, instead of filing a claim with L&I. L&I sponsors regular classes and sends publications to employers on worker’s comp law and how to “minimize” worker’s comp claims. It also gives tax breaks to employers who hold down their total worker’s comp claims. Yet L&I provides very little information or outreach to educate workers about safety on the job, beyond the simple requirement that all employers must put up a poster on the premises listing a worker’s right to file a claim with L&I in case of injury on the job. Enforcement of this simple rule is lax, unless an employee complains to L&I.

An increase in the use of temp or contract workers has increased the overall rate of repetitive motion injuries. According to the study, employers seem to be hiring temps to do tedious work, then throwing them away when they “wear out,” shifting the injury costs onto temp agencies or the individual workers themselves.

The industries showing the highest level of back and arm injuries include: nursing homes, construction trades, logging, sawmills, wholesale meat packing, and fruit and vegetable packing plants. White collar office workers also show high rates of arm injuries, as do apple pickers and supermarket checkers. The main risk factors include: heavy or repetitive lifting or pushing, handling objects far from the body, handling objects above the shoulder or below knuckle height or in a twisted position, moving or handling objects over other obstructions, extreme or prolonged awkward postures, and fast-paced work with little control over the way the job is done.

Once a person suffers from a repetitive motion injury, the healing process is slow and often incomplete. Many folks wait until the pain is unbearable and irreparable damage is done until they say anything to their supervisor or go see a doctor. All workers need to know that they have the right to refuse to do any activity that can injure them for life or saddle them with a chronic pain condition, regardless of how it impacts the company’s bottom line. And in these days of cynical griping about unions, we tend to forget that forming a union in a workplace can improve job safety faster than any individual complaints to the boss or phone calls to L&I.