A cumulative injury, also known as cumulative trauma, is a workplace injury caused by repetitive activity that happens over a period of time. Because these injuries did not happen by way of one a particular accident, they can be more difficult to prove than a specific injury. The statute of limitations is also complicated because the injury did not happen all at once.
What is a work-related cumulative trauma injury?
A cumulative trauma injury is a type of physical injury that happens over a long period of time. As time passes, cumulative injuries get progressively worse. The disabilities that they cause and the pain that they create steadily grow.
Cumulative injuries are contrasted with specific injuries. Specific injuries are work-related injuries that happen all at once and in a single event or accident.
For example: Seth and Curt work in a warehouse. They unload trucks all day. One day, Seth drops a box on his foot, breaking it. This is a specific injury. Curt, meanwhile, develops back pain that gets worse and worse until he finally sees a doctor. The doctor diagnoses a muscle strain from the constant lifting. This is a cumulative injury.
An important difference between cumulative and specific injuries is how difficult it is to pinpoint a date of injury. Specific injuries happen in an accident, so ascertaining the date is easy. Cumulative injuries can take weeks, months, or even years to develop. The initial onset of the injury may happen months before the victim even feels anything. It can take several months longer for the pain to become substantial, and even longer for there to be any disability.
Nevertheless, cumulative injuries that happen because of the victim’s job duties can still lead to workers’ compensation benefits. However, they can be more difficult to prove than specific injuries. Victims may also face obstacles in filing their workers’ comp claim before the statute of limitations has expired.
What are some common injuries?
Some common cumulative trauma disorders and injuries include:
- carpal tunnel syndrome in the wrist,
- cubital tunnel syndrome in the elbow,
- herniated discs and other back injuries,
- muscle strains,
- repetitive stress injuries,
- nerve damage,
- hearing loss,
- psychological trauma,
- tendinitis, and
- rotator cuff tears.
In some states, like California, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may be considered a cumulative injury for certain firefighters and police officers.1
These types of injuries tend to happen when workers have to put up with the following risk factors in the course of employment:
- loud noises,
- repetitive work,
- constant use of the same repetitive motions,
- long hours or shifts,
- having to perform the same tasks over and over again,
- awkward postures,
- non-ergonomic working conditions,
- intense vibrations,
- the need to repeatedly use a significant amount of force,
- having to lift heavy objects in tight spaces that keep the worker from using ideal lifting techniques, and
- an inability to fully recover from the bad working conditions.
These poor working conditions can cause serious injuries to workers who are exposed to them over long periods of time.
How can I prove a cumulative trauma claim?
Proving a workers’ comp claim for a cumulative injury is more difficult than it is for a specific injury. Workplace accidents that cause specific injuries are often witnessed by coworkers who can attest that it happened on the job. Workers’ compensation insurance companies often claim that cumulative injuries did not happen in the workplace. Proving that this is not the case can be difficult.
The best way for victims to prove a cumulative trauma case is to establish an attorney-client relationship with a workers’ compensation lawyer. A workers’ compensation attorney will know where to look for evidence that the injury happened on the worksite.
That evidence can take a variety of forms, like:
- how foreseeable the injury was, given the worker’s job duties,
- medical records showing that the worker did not have the injury before being on the job for a significant period of time,
- testimony from the treating physician,
- evidence that the worker followed the employer’s safety guidelines and used any personal protective equipment (PPE) that was offered,
- a lack of safety guidelines or training in the workplace, and
- the prevalence of similar cumulative injuries in other workers with the same job duties, both under the same employer and elsewhere in the industry.
Even when there is strong evidence that the injury happened because of poor working conditions, the employer’s insurer may still argue that it happened off the job. They often comb through details of the victim’s life to find another potential cause of the injury, especially if it is one that will cost a lot to fully compensate. Some common arguments will be that the injury was due to:
- a preexisting medical condition that the worker has,
- an accident that happened off the job site,
- poor working conditions at a prior job,
- one of the worker’s hobbies, or
- the worker’s decision not to take appropriate safety measures that were offered on the job site.
Overcoming these arguments can be difficult. Getting the legal advice of a personal injury lawyer from a reputable law firm who has experience filing workers’ compensation cases can make a big difference in the outcome of your injury claim.
Does workers’ compensation cover these injuries?
Yes, the workers’ compensation system covers cumulative injuries, in addition to:
- specific injuries, and
- occupational diseases.
Just like workers who develop an occupational disease, though, victims of cumulative injuries can have trouble proving that the injury happened on the job.
How quickly do I need to file a workers’ comp claim?
Different states set different time periods for workers’ comp claims to be filed. They are often around 1 year. However, these statutes of limitations generally begin on the date of the injury. This makes cumulative injury cases complicated because the date of the injury is often difficult to pinpoint.
Depending on the state, the time window for victims of cumulative injuries to file their workers’ compensation claim can begin when they:
- learn of their work injury,
- should have realized that they had suffered a workplace injury, or
- get diagnosed by a doctor.
Failing to file the claim for workers’ compensation benefits before the statute of limitations has expired will mean that the claim can be easily dismissed.
What is the law in California?
Under California workers’ compensation law, a cumulative injury is defined as one “occurring as repetitive mentally or physically traumatic activities extending over a period of time, the combined effect of which causes any disability or need for medical treatment.”2 Victims are entitled to workers’ compensation for cumulative injuries that happen on the job.
The statute of limitations requires workers to file their claim within 1 year from the date of the injury.3 For both cumulative injuries and occupational diseases, the “date of the injury” is the date when the worker was first disabled and either:
- knew that the disability was from work, or
- should have known that the disability was from work.4
This is meant to ensure that injured workers do not lose their right to compensation solely because they were unaware of that right.5
- California Labor Code 3212.15 LAB and Senate Bill 542 (2019).
- California Labor Code 3208.1 LAB.
- California Labor Code 5405 LAB.
- California Labor Code 3208.1(b) and 5412 LAB.
- City of Los Angeles v. WCAB, 88 Cal.App.3d 19, fn.6 (1978).