What happens when your injuries at work happen over time?

Not all work injuries arise from a sudden accident. Many are the result of repeated, continuous movements or exposure to unhealthy work environments. A cumulative trauma disorder (CTD) or repetitive stress injury (RSI) can take weeks, months, or years to appear. These terms describe a number of different overuse, repetitive use, and repetitive strain disorders that can cause serious and disabling problems for workers over time. Worker Holding His Shoulder in Pain After a Repetitive Action InjuryCumulative trauma and repetitive stress injuries often result from an employee’s normal daily work habits.

Unlike an accident injury, these kinds of cumulative injuries are the result of many small or repetitive injuries over time. These injuries, and the pain associated with each, are usually caused or worsened by continued repetitive motion of the injured area. Cumulative or repetitive injuries often affect the knees, back, neck, tendons, nerves, elbows, shoulders, or hands. Workers in physically demanding industries, like railway workers and seamen, may be especially prone to injuries over time, but employees in other industries are not immune.

Types of cumulative or repetitive stress injuries caused by work

Although repetitive stress and overuse disorders are often talked about in office environments, they can be a problem for employees in a wide range of job environments, including retail stores, transportation companies, warehouses, oil rigs, towboats, and more. These kinds of injuries can happen in any work environment that involves:

  • Making the same motion over and over in the course of the job
  • Repeatedly carrying heavy or awkwardly shaped objects
  • Use of faulty equipment or equipment that is not ergonomically designed
  • Being exposed to constant vibration, noise, pounding, or other physical stresses
  • Awkward or unnatural postures and movements
  • Staying in the same position for long periods of time

Some common examples of cumulative injuries caused by these kinds of issues in work environments include:   

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Epicondylitis or “tennis elbow”
  • Thoracic outlet syndrome
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Degenerative disc disease
  • Rotator cuff injuries
  • Tendinitis
  • Bursitis
  • Ganglion cysts
  • “Trigger finger”
  • Hearing loss

In many cases, using the right equipment, making small changes to how you perform your work, and seeking prompt medical treatment can prevent these injuries from worsening or reoccurring.

Warning signs of cumulative trauma and repetitive stress injuries

Many workers struggle with cumulative injuries. However, because cumulative injuries occur slowly and worsen over time, many workers ignore the signs of these serious conditions, often chalking it up to a rough day, the effects of aging, or “just part of the job.” If your work seems to be taking more and more of a toll on your body, there’s a chance that you could be suffering from a cumulative injury, which could continue to worsen or become permanent if you don’t take action. If you are suffering from any of these warning signs, you should seek medical guidance immediately:

  • Visible joint swelling or redness
  • Persistent or recurring back, neck, or joint pain
  • Numbness, tingling, or loss of feeling in a joint or limb
  • Stiffness or difficulty in moving a joint
  • Weakness or loss of strength in a joint or limb
  • Hearing, vision, or breathing changes

In addition to medical guidance, you may also want to seek legal guidance if you believe your injuries have been caused by the demands of your job. While these conditions can limit your ability to work and perform day-to-day activities in the same way an accident injury might, workers with cumulative injuries often have a more difficult time proving their injury claims. Workers do have rights when it comes to occupational injuries like these, but it is often difficult to pursue compensation.

When is my employer responsible for cumulative injuries?

Whether your injury was the result of repeated heavy lifting, poorly set up work stations, awkward postures, repetitive movements, or another issue, you may have the right to compensation. Worker protections are generally not limited only to injuries that happen in a sudden accident or incident, and pursuing a claim may help you pay for the medical care you require.

If your injury was caused by the demands of your job over time, and if your employer participates, worker’s compensation should cover the costs of your medical treatment. If your employer does not participate but was somehow responsible for the conditions that led to your injury—even in cases where your injury resulted from long-term repetitive use or overuse—then it may be possible to file an injury claim and pursue compensation for your medical bills and expenses that way. If the equipment that caused your injury was defective, you may even be able to pursue a claim against the manufacturer. However, it’s not always easy to pursue a claim for a cumulative injury.

Cumulative injuries can be every bit as painful as those caused by sudden trauma, but are unfortunately much harder to prove. It can be truly difficult to determine if your employer is at fault, and your employer is likely to fight against taking any responsibility. Your employer may argue that your cumulative injuries are simply the result of aging, non-work activities, or a preexisting condition, and it may be extremely difficult to prove your injury claim—or even determine your rights—in a non-accident situation.

However, you don’t have to figure it all out on your own, and you can get clear, honest answers about your case and your employer’s responsibility. If you have been hurt at work and need answers, it’s recommended that you at least talk with an experienced attorney who can review your situation and explain exactly what you need to know.

Waiting too long to take action could wreck your work injury claim, especially if your case is complicated by cumulative or repetitive injuries that began at an unknown time. Time limits can be difficult to determine for cumulative injuries, and it can be difficult to prove your claims if your employer chooses to fight paying compensation. Make sure you know your rights, and don’t wait until it’s too late to get the help you need. For more information or specific answers to your questions, reach out to VB Attorneys today at 1-877-724-7800 for a free and confidential case review.


Brian Beckcom
Highest Possible 10/10 AVVO ranking. Husband. Father. Fisherman.