By: Richard N. Shapiro, SCLA Attorney
More and more of our law firm's clients are suffering injuries caused by repetitive heavy lifting or repetitive work tasks which can cause permanent injuries and the need for surgeries on the wrist, elbow, knees, hips, shoulder, as well as back and neck. Track maintenance workers have developed carpal tunnel syndrome by the hundreds, and this is a form of repetitive stress injury of course. Most clients have no idea what ergonomics has to do with railroad injuries. This article explores just how important the study of ergonomics is in helping us prove a case for a railroad worker who suffers repetitive stress injuries.
The word ergonomics has several definitions, but most experts agree that it involves designing workplace tools or equipment to make them more user-friendly and safe for workers. Most of us are familiar with lawn and garden tools that are made with a handle or grip that is more comfortable, and this is a very basic form of ergonomics. However, the field involves not only changing a grip or a way to hold a tool, but more broadly involves changing work tasks themselves, to prevent repetitive stress injuries before they ever happen. Changing the way work tasks are done is known as an "administrative change." Changing the actual tool or the equipment is known as an "engineering change." These are the two most common ways ergonomics affects railroad workers and workers in any field that repetitively use hand tools or power equipment, that is used nearly every day at work
If a railroad worker is advised by a doctor that surgery is recommended because of repetitive stress injuries to a body part, a physician may recommend to the worker that he or she should not return to the same type of work that caused the injuries in the first place. This makes sense, as it would be like a worker suffering a lung disease from a specific toxic chemical, and going right back into the same environment that caused permanent lung injuries, and being exposed again every day.
When a potential client contacts our law firm, they may have recently been told by a doctor that the cause of their repetitive injuries must have been their railroad job/occupation and what they do every day. One of the first things we explain to a railroad worker, is that their railroad employer is not liable to pay them compensation unless the railroad was careless or negligent in failing to prevent their repetitive stress injuries from occurring in the first place. This is where analysis of ergonomics and reasonable prevention of repetitive stress injuries becomes critical. Often, not only do we apply the evidence we have developed, but some cases involve our locating and retaining an “ergonomist” –an egonomics specialist who has analyzed and designed ergonomics safety programs for an industry, for example.
Many of the nation's major railroads have made preventing injuries and diseases in the railroad workplace one of their priorities, because they have learned that preventing injuries saves the railroad money, so it is simple economics driving the equation. The major railroads have been in an organization called the Association of American Railroads (AAR), since as far back as the 1920s. Yes, some railroads have merged to become their present corporate form, but let's not forget the railroads were some of the most powerful corporations in the United States back in the 1920s, and even then they even employed doctors, on staff, who had regular medical seminars to discuss current trends in railroad worker injuries and diseases. Repetitive work task injuries was discussed by these doctors on occasion, but came to the forefront in the 1980’s if not earlier. Not only did the railroad doctors pay attention, but the AAR, as the nation’s railroad trade and educational organization, decided to teach rail supervisors about ergonomics by 1990.
Although there were discussions about repetitive stress injuries earlier, it wasn't until 1990 that the Association of American railroads decided to hold seminars to explain how ergonomics could help railroads reduce injuries in the workplace. Our law firm has obtained many of the materials which were shared with the nation's railroads, which were a part of these AAR trade organization educational seminars in 1990 and 1991, including “draft” materials. At first, the major railroads were eager to learn about ergonomics--it made sense to learn how to avoid injuries in the workplace because it saves the railroads money in the long run. It was only after rail worker attorneys used the very same materials AGAINST the railroads that the discussion of ergonomics seemed to go “underground.” On the one hand, the AAR championed ergonomics, but then when the railroads failed to carry through the prevention methods to various types of rail workers, the same materials are irrefutable proof of railroad negligence in avoiding preventable injuries—that are continuing to occur!
The seminars were incredibly detailed. The railroads in the ergonomics seminars of 1990 and 1991 learned that they must review the total number of claims that were injuring workers, to help analyze which specific tasks were causing injuries so they could be addressed and changed. The supervisors with the railroads were taught how to go about doing a complete ergonomic evaluation in the workplace-after analyzing safety data on previous injuries, railroads learned that slip and fall injuries as well as low back injuries from lifting, were two of the biggest areas that the railroads knew were repetitively causing injuries and which needed attention. The railroad safety supervisor was advised to take pictures of how the tasks that were causing injuries were being done. Further, the supervisors with railroads learned about the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health “lifting criteria.” To avoid low back injuries caused by repetitive or heavy lifts, NIOSH had developed guidelines on safe amounts that could be lifted at any one time, much less repetitively. And this was called the NIOSH criteria. A simple NIOSH chart visually showed the railroad supervisor, what amount could be lifted and the criteria explained how the heavier the amount, and the further it was lifted above the waist and away from the body, the less a worker could safely lift on a repetitive basis, or even one time. Not only this, many railroad purchased computer software that could evaluate lifting an repetitive lifting tasks—this was called two dimensional or three dimensional software. Thus, railroads learned how to prevent heavy lifting injuries, and knew that the tasks should be ergonomically changed, as one example of many.
Supervisors were trained about how to reduce the weight of various boxes or objects and this was a form of ergonomics-changing the weight of supplies for example is what is called an administrative change. Another area that was studied, was simply putting mechanical or hydraulic booms on railroad high rail trucks, and to require that the booms lift equipment from a truck rather than have to workers do the same task. This was an actual engineering change to the railroad workplace.
The broad study of ergonomics didn't just include lifting in 1990. Railroad supervisors looked into ergonomic changes to the office environment for clerical railroad workers, and even looked into of prevention of slips, trips and fall injuries. Changing flooring to a non-skid surface, changing the surfaces of work shoes or boots, involves either engineering or administrative changes to prevent slips trips and falls. As a matter of fact, railroad injuries caused by slips, trips or false are one of the specific troublesome injury prevention areas that railroads examined in 1990.
Although all the major railroads studied ergonomics as early as 1990, our firm has developed interesting information with regard to CSX. One of its safety supervisors took the knowledge from the 1990 ergonomics seminars and went into the CSX workplace to evaluate electrical worker/electrician injuries. He followed all of the ergonomic training criteria, by using the NIOSH criteria, studying the type of injuries that were repetitively seen. By analyzing prior claims, conducting photographs of the work tasks, interviewing the workers to determine what was causing the injuries, he applied these principles to help reduce injuries to electricians. Electricians with CSX were in the maintenance of Way Department at CSX. I have deposed this supervisor several times since the middle 1990s, and amazingly CSX did not conduct these same sort of comprehensive ergonomic assessments with track maintenance, and maintenance of way workers at CSX which comprised a massively larger number of workers, with tremendously higher numbers of injuries due to the more strenuous type of work done. What is amazing is that the track maintenance workers had by far the highest number of low back injuries, and also suffered a significant amount of slips, trips and falls, but CSX and never conducted detailed ergonomic evaluations of these track maintenance workers in the 90s or even up till now. This can be good evidence of inadequate evaluation of ergonomics in the workplace.
So, to bring the discussion of ergonomics full circle, when we are contacted by a railroad worker, including an engineer, conductor, signal worker, or track maintenance worker who has suffered a low back injury from repetitive stress, or some other type of repetitive stress injury, we are able to evaluate a potential claim against whether the railroad has taken appropriate steps to help prevent the type of injury presented. We must analyze and investigate the railroad's knowledge and whether it took any steps to prevent the this type of injury in the workplace. This is how the field and the study of ergonomics is important with regard to railroad worker injuries.
Any railroad worker should be mindful of the fact that claims against the railroad fall under the Federal Employers Liability Act, which provides for a three-year statute of limitations from when the claim arises/accrues. In repetitive stress injury situations, careful legal analysis must be applied to determine when the three-year statute of limitations begins to run, (“accrues” in legal jargon”) If you believe that you or a family member may have a repetitive stress injury, you should seek legal advice as soon as possible, because the statute of limitations analysis usually requires legal advice and a careful analysis of not only the legal situation but a review of all applicable prior medical care for that particular type of injury involved. Please contact our law firm if you would like to have a free initial consultation. We handle these types of cases on a contingent legal fee, which means that our firm recovers a legal fee only if we recover for you or your family member’s injury.