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Occupational Injury Law Center
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Occupational ailments vs. repetitive trauma

Workers’ compensation is a benefits system that covers more than just injuries that occur after a workplace accident or while performing work-sanctioned activities. In California, it also covers trauma that develops from repetitive actions and prolonged exposure to occupational health hazards. Workers’ compensation claims involving cumulative and occupational hazard trauma are not as cut and dry or easy to navigate. 

Unlike specific injury cases where the cause of injury is often less difficult to ascertain, repetitive injuries and occupational ailments arise from nonspecific events and multiple issues that take time to develop. Many employers dispute the veracity of these claims to avoid paying out benefits. Employees who believe their work-related injuries are the result of time and multiple exposures should take time to review the basics of occupational illness and repetitive trauma and how they may pertain to their circumstances. 

What is a repetitive injury? 

Repetitive injuries can happen from everyday movements that normally do not result in trauma. Performing the same task or action repeatedly over the course of months and years can cause some people to experience changes in their health that interfere with their ability to perform work tasks and live without pain, discomfort and/or challenges. One example of a repetitive injury is a nurse who regularly lifts patients and heavy medical equipment for 10 years. During the course of employment, nurses may develop back strain, dislocated discs and other spinal issues that prevent them from performing their job. Another example is a secretary who develops carpal tunnel syndrome that prevents movement of the fingers after entering data into a computer for several years. 

What is an occupational trauma injury? 

Cumulative trauma or occupational illnesses occur from repeated exposure to toxins and occupational hazards. Most types of cumulative injuries take years or even decades to develop, making it difficult for many workers to get medical treatment during the early stages of their conditions. By the time some employees realize their symptoms are due to an occupational hazard exposure, their lives are irrevocably changed, and they are permanently impaired/disabled. An example of cumulative trauma that stems from chemical exposure is carpenters who develop lung cancer or mesothelioma after encountering asbestos and other harmful substances during the course of their career.

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