Repetitive Stress Claims Under FELA | Shapiro, Washburn & Sharp

Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -- on and around trains requires a lot of reaching, bending, twisting and lifting. Often, the motions must be performed in an exact order at precise angles to ensure a task is completed quickly, correctly and with minimum risk of immediate injury to oneself and one’s coworkers.

Attending to those details of railroad work protects people in the moment but raises employees’ risk for suffering repetitive stress injuries—especially when the same motions are made in the same ways for decades. Also called repetitive motion injuries, repetitive strain injuries and repetitive trauma, these problems develop over time and can affect any joint or muscle group that is regularly called into use while working.

Repeated use causes nerves to stretch. Tiny tears form in muscles, tendons and ligaments. Cartilage breaks down. The small sacs (bursae) that provide lubricant to joints become inflamed. Workers end up with chronic, painful health problems with names like carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis and bursitis.

Early symptoms of repetitive stress injuries are pain with movement, weakness, stiffness and swelling. When nerve damage has occurred, slight burning and occasional numbness may occur. Left untreated, the problem becomes disabling, forcing a person to either change jobs or quit working altogether.



Hands, wrists, elbows, shoulders and the neck are most prone to repetitive stress injuries. Any longtime railroader probably suffers back, hip, knee, ankle and foot problems, as well. Some of the issues come from the simple wear and tear everyone puts on their body throughout their lifetime. Other issues can be traced to specific incidents such as falls, crashes or sports injuries.

Repetitive stress injuries can often be prevented, however. Properly designed tools and procedures, sufficient training and a commitment from management to ensure worker health combine to protect employees. Railroaders who develop debilitating repetitive stress injuries because any of those protections were not provided can have grounds for seeking disability compensation under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA).

Diagnosing a Work-Related Repetitive Stress Disorder

A FELA claim for a repetitive stress injury can only move forward when the current or former railroad employee has a confirmed diagnosis. Obtaining such a diagnosis usually requires seeing one or more medical specialists who will assess symptoms and conduct detailed interviews to rule out causes other than motions made on the job. Confirming a diagnosis may also require performing physical tests that mimic job tasks.

Importantly, the diagnosed condition must have developed within three years of when the railroad worker files their FELA claim. The law sets a strict statute of limitations. Missing the deadline for requesting compensation automatically invalidates a claim.

Succeeding With a FELA Claim Requires Proving Negligence

Specifically, a worker who files a FELA claim based on a diagnosed repetitive stress injury must show that their employer acted negligently in failing to prevent the development of the injury. Attorneys with our Virginia-based FELA law firm employ several methods to prove this.

We commission ergonomic analyses to determine how tasks could be performed in ways that eliminate, rather than merely minimize injury risks. We also review all relevant procedural manuals and training materials while comparing the practices of our client’s company with best industry practices.

A company that fails to meet industry standards is, arguably, being negligent. Showing that company officials knew what the best practices were and chose not to implement those makes the argument that they acted negligently very strong.