Virginia Legislators to Take Up Handling of Carpal Syndrome

Article excerpt

A legislative proposal that aims to pay workers' compensation benefits to carpal tunnel syndrome sufferers in Virginia is headed for a showdown in Richmond.

Though most observers agree that the Virginia General Assembly must take action on the issue this session, business and labor groups are at odds over how the law should be written.

"It would seem that it's in everyone's best interests to fashion some sort of statutory solution," said John Broadway, vice president of the Virginia chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business. "The question is, how should it be worded to adequately cover workers yet remain in the spirit of the act?"

The Virginia Supreme Court ruled last year that carpal tunnel syndrome is not covered under the state's workers' compensation laws because it is neither an injury that occurs at one point in time nor a disease, such as black lung, that can be readily proved to have been contracted over a period of years at work. That means carpal tunnel syndrome sufferers who believe their disorder is work-related can only recover damages by suing their employers.

Carpal tunnel syndrome, which can affect anyone from assembly plant workers to computer operators to hotel laundry workers who spend much of the day folding towels, is a disorder of the hands, wrists and arms caused by repetitive motion. Though statistics aren't available specifically for Virginia, a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics study last year found that 38,337 cases of carpal tunnel syndrome were reported in 1994. For the same year, 332,000 repetitive-motion injuries were reported nationwide, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 10 percent more than in 1993 and a 15 percent increase from 1992.

In response to the Supreme Court's ruling, Virginia labor groups plan to introduce a bill by today's 5 p.m. filing deadline that would include carpal tunnel syndrome and other diseases related to repetitive motion under the state's workers' compensation act.

"There is a large body of white-collar office workers who, if they develop carpal tunnel syndrome or any other disease related to repetitive stress, would have no coverage," said Gary Kendall, a Charlottesville lawyer representing the Virginia chapter of the AFL-CIO.

But business groups, led by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, plan to introduce their own carpal tunnel syndrome bill. It would grant workers' compensation benefits only if there's proof the injury was properly diagnosed and was, without question, caused by work. …