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August 18, 1999

Pain is part of the paycheck for many workers

Twenty years of clutching a hand-held grinder for 10 hours a day left a lasting impression on machinist Terry Stewart.

"Some mornings my hand would be clenched into a claw, and I would have to work to pop it open," the 51-year-old Mukilteo resident said.

Having to pry open his right hand every morning, the unrelenting pain shooting through his arm and numbness in his hand were just part of the job, Stewart thought.

However, the pain began to take its toll: "It got to a point where I couldn't do my job anymore because I couldn't hold onto the tools," he said. Finally, in 1997, Stewart visited a doctor.

"The doctor told me I had carpal tunnel syndrome and something called 'trigger finger syndrome,'" he said.

The bottom line: If the injuries went untreated, Stewart would continue to lose strength in his hands and soon would be unemployed.

In September 1998, Stewart underwent surgery on his right wrist.

Two months later, surgeons operated on Stewart's left wrist, which also was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome.

Taking advantage of an employee retiring, Stewart's employer moved him to a job that required less hand grinding. And, after a meeting with the Department of Labor & Industries therapist consultant Dorothy Raymore, Stewart changed to fatter-handled tools.

For Stewart, it was too little, too late.

"The company now is looking into moving people around to different jobs," he said. "I stayed on that bench for years, and I think they learned what can happen when someone does the same thing over and over again without a change."

Unfortunately, what happened to Stewart is not an isolated incident.

Every day, L&I accepts between 100 & 200 claims for work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs), such as carpal tunnel syndrome, "tennis elbow," back strain and torn ligaments. Statistics from one day show these WMSD claims: 91 back, 8 elbow, 19, shoulder, 4 hand, 11 knee, 2 foot, 5 upper arm, 18 neck, 4 ankle and 22 wrist (Note: a detailed graphic is available with these number). These injuries result in an average of 50,000 workers' compensation claims a year.

For 1997, L&I paid $291 million to cover medical expenses and wage replacement benefits for workers who suffered WMSDs. Employers and workers finance the "Washington State Fund" that pays these claims.

Finding an answer

"The key to preventing these types of injuries is identifying and fixing the hazards that cause them," said L&I ergonomist Rick Goggins.

Goggins said employers should take the time to look at possible problems and make an effort to work with employees to solve the problem. Answers may be as simple as fatter-handled tools, raising or lowering a working surface or moving materials with a cart instead of by hand.

"To protect workers, we need a bottoms up approach for looking at the problem," said Bill Daniell, Occupational Medicine Physician at the University of Washington.

"Workers ought to be involved in the evaluation of their workplace," he said.

For employers, it is often less expensive to pay for improved work areas and tools than to lose the services of skilled workers and face higher workers' compensation premiums, Daniell added.

Healthy worker, healthy business

The foundation of any business - from building homes to building computer chips - is a healthy workforce.

While some threats to worker safety and health are obvious - heavy machinery and working at high elevations, for example - other threats may initially appear to be benign tasks.

However, over time, these tasks can have a devastating cumulative effect on a worker's health.

"Doesn't seem like much, but over time you never know what can happen to you," Stewart said.

"It is better to make a simple adjustment early on than to have to pay the great physical price later in the game."

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