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July 23, 2013

Cumulative Trauma (CT) – The "Wearing Out" Disease

Summary:

Cumulative trauma claims are just another drain on employers and therefore the California economy, and this issue needs to be addressed.

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It is time to revisit and re-evaluate the value of this statutory condition (L/C 3208.1), which is rapidly becoming yet another undue burden on both employers as well as the workers' compensation system. Cumulative Trauma claims are currently being used, and in many instances abused, by disgruntled employees who are no longer on the payroll. By filing Post-Termination Cumulative Trauma claims, employees are circumventing the legitimate needs of businesses to make personnel decisions based on the employer's current financial situation and needs.

One need only look at the increase in Cumulative Trauma claims that are being filed after an employee has been laid off. While there has been no specific injury that they can point to, many are now claiming that “work” has worn them out and that they are therefore entitled to even more money than that which was bargained for as a part of their employment agreement.

I would not argue that there are no real and viable events that can lead to a compensable situation. Asbestosis would be the best example of an occupational disease that was unknown to either management or their employees for many years. Litigation over asbestosis has been ongoing since then, and I believe that the compensation awarded to injured workers in such cases is justified.

However, when an employee who is hired to do a job that produces no discernible injuries and who has been laid off for legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons is able to work around the system by claiming a cumulative injury, it is time to reassess the value of that part of the Labor Code. We must decide if both parties to this equation are being properly served. Or, is this an abuse of the system that has been allowed to fester too long?

As a starting point for this discussion, when someone is hired for a job whether it is for either brain or brawn, the employer is taking on the whole person as he/she finds them. When the employee arrives at the jobsite, he/she does not simply place their body in the corner to rest while some mysterious spirit does their job. Employers hire the entire package as he/she finds them and is responsible for same. I would then point out that whether or not we like it, all of us are “wearing-out” as the years pass. The question then is, “Why should an employer be responsible for the normal aging process vs. being responsible for a specific injury?” I argue that they should not.

I therefore offer three possible options for consideration. Any or all of these will allow legitimate cumulative injuries to be raised as part of the work bargain while at the same time making employees responsible for their own “wearing out.”

  • Take “cumulative” claims out of L/C [Section 3208.1(b)] so that it reads: “An injury may be either specific or cumulative occurring as the result of one or a series of incidents or exposure which causes disability or the need for medical treatment” and then remove cumulative trauma from L/C 5412 and place it under 5411.

    This will allow employees to file a cumulative trauma claim just as they would a specific injury. This would also place the burden of proof on the employee to show, just as they must now with a specific injury. In other words, what extraordinary events of employment occurred thereby showing how this cumulative trauma is more than just part of the normal “wearing out/aging” process we all face every day.

  • Change the definition of a Cumulative Trauma injury to more closely mirror that of psych/stress claims (L/C 3208.3). In other words, let the employee show how the preponderance of actual work, absent the normal aging process, had caused a “disability” which should be covered.
  • Since the employer is hiring the entire package, we should set up a “depletion” allowance funded by the employee. There should be a percentage taken from each dollar earned which is placed in a fund similar to a 401K. It will belong to the employee and will be portable so that it follows him/her throughout their working career. At the time they become eligible for Social Security, they would have access to this additional fund of dollars. This would result in taking the burden of the normal aging process off the backs of employers.

Regardless of which of these or any others the legislature feels would be the best solution to this growing problem, the real point is that this is currently just another further drain on employers and therefore the California economy and needs to be addressed.

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