Overreaching pays off – with a bad shoulder

by on January 5, 2012 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Workplace Safety Network

Workers have to reach for a lot of things – tools, materials, equipment – during the day. But a reach too far can result in costly injury.

“I have to go home,” stocker Melanie Duquette told parts manager Glen Elliott, holding her right shoulder. “I tweaked my shoulder and it hurts like blazes.”

“Oh, no,” Glen said. “What did you do?”

Pulling parts
“OK, what happened was I had to pull some parts from the top rack,” she said. “I lifted the box down with the forklift like I always do, and set it on the floor.”

“The parts I wanted were way in the back of the box, so I reached over to get them,” she went on. “I guess maybe I should have walked around the box and gotten them from the side they were on, but I was in a hurry.”

“Anyway, I felt a pop in my shoulder. I tried to work through it – I scanned the part numbers into the system with my left hand – but it’s no good. It hurts too much.”

“Go home, then,” Glen said. “But you’ll have to see our doctor if this is work-related.”

He paused a moment. “Are you sure it’s work-related?” he asked. “I remember you telling me you’d been helping your sister move last weekend. Are you sure you didn’t hurt the shoulder then?”

“Nope,” Melanie said. “Like I just told you, I hurt it reaching for those parts.”

“All right,” Glen said, scribbling some numbers. “Here’s the doctor’s phone and address. Go see him and let me know what he says.”

The doctor diagnosed a torn rotator cuff, and put Melanie off work for several weeks. She eventually had to have surgery. She filed a workers compensation claim, which the company contested on grounds that she didn’t hurt herself at work, but at home.

Did the company win?

The decision
No. The state workers compensation board accepted the doctor’s opinion that Melanie’s work caused the injury. And the board said her account of how she hurt her shoulder was credible. The company had to pay her medical costs and an indemnity.

Workplace injuries don’t all come from catastrophic events like fires, explosions, falls, entanglements in machinery and the like. Often simple actions like reaching for a part or tool can put a worker out for days, weeks, or months.

Supervisors should remind workers as part of regular safety meetings that they can injure themselves by reaching too far. Overreaching stresses the structures of the back and shoulders, especially when done repeatedly over a long period.

To avoid these types of injuries, people should arrange their workstation so that everything they need is within easy reach.

Rule of thumb
Here’s a good rule of thumb: Keep frequently-used items within 14 inches for two-handed tasks and 18 inches for one-handed tasks.

If items can’t be placed within easy reach, workers should get in the habit of moving their entire body to get them, not just the upper body and/or arms and hands. And they should use a stepstool or ladder if the items are too high to reach comfortably.

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