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Ruling questions role of pre-existing conditions in work injuries

A recent U.S. Court of Appeals ruling could have serious consequences for Pennsylvania workers. However, the lasting impacts of the decision will come as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration measures its reaction.

The case came in response to a woman's request for benefits for a work injury she received on an assembly line at a Caterpillar plant. After five weeks on the job, the woman developed medial and lateral epicondylitis, a repetitive motion injury better known as tennis elbow. Company officials ruled that work-related tasks alone did not contribute to her medical condition. As a result, they did not log her injury according to OSHA regulations.

In response to this decision, OSHA disputed the company's and issued a citation for failing to report this injury. Caterpillar appealed the citation and the court of appeals sided with the employer.

The primary basis for the employer's objection is whether or not a pre-existing condition could have been the cause of her injury. According to representatives for the company, none of the other workers on the woman's packing line have suffered from tennis elbow.

However, the ambiguous nature of current OSHA regulations is likely to contribute to future legal action. Existing rules stipulate that an injury is classified as work-related if the "work environment either caused or contributed to the resulting condition." Questions of how "contributed to" is defined is likely to be clarified by the agency. Based on how OSHA has acted in recent years, observers believe they will create a broader definition that would likely include an injury such as the one sustained by the Caterpillar employee.

As OSHA clarifies its position, it will be vital for employees and employers to pay attention to how workplace injuries are reported. If the definition of a workplace injury becomes more encompassing, an employee's claim for workers' compensation benefits could be bolstered if it is included on the injury log submitted to OSHA.

Source: Human Resources Executive Online, "OSHA Boomerang?" Tom Starner, May 4, 2012

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