Carpal Tunnel Syndrome at Work

What is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) is one of a group of injuries known as repetitive stress injuries in which nerve damage is suffered in one or both hands. The nerves that supply the hand and wrist include the median nerve, the ulnar nerve and the superficial radial nerve. The carpal tunnel, which is located at the base of the wrist, houses the median nerve and a number of tendons. CTS is a condition that occurs when the median nerve is pressed or squeezed as it travels through the wrist at the carpal tunnel.

What are the symptoms of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

The symptoms of CTS usually develop in a gradual way and often first manifest themselves in either or both hands experiencing sensations of burning or itching at night time. As the condition develops typical symptoms include pain, numbness in the palm, and tingling in the fingers. Sometimes sufferers fell as if their fingers are swollen although there will normally be no obvious visual signs of swelling. Deterioration will result in serious reduction in grip strength meaning that carrying out the most basic of everyday tasks such as picking up small objects, tying shoe laces, fastening zips or doing up buttons can become extremely difficult.

What causes Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

This is not always easy to say because CTS can be linked to any condition that causes pressure on the median nerve at the wrist and has been associated with being a side effect of a very wide range of common conditions such as obesity, hypothyroidism, arthritis and diabetes. Genetic issues and risk factors such as smoking and alcohol consumption may also play a part.

Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome work-related?

This is a very controversial issue. Vested interests, such as insurers for employers, often argue that the cause of CTS is never clear and that it can result from a combination of work-related and non-work related factors. However, as time goes on there is mounting evidence to prove that CTS is a work-related injury in many cases.

For instance, the regular and prolonged use of hand-held vibratory tools has been found to increase the risk of CTS more than twofold. Even higher risks are associated with prolonged and highly repetitive flexion and extension of the wrist, especially when coupled with a strong grip. Likewise, tasks involving frequent flexion or extension and sustained force of the wrist increases the risk of developing CTS.

This means that workers with jobs involving repetitive or forceful hand or wrist tasks are at a significantly increased risk of developing CTS with the result that it is a common injury in assembly line work such as manufacturing, sewing, finishing, cleaning, and meat, poultry and fish packaging.

Prolonged repetitive work in cold conditions has been identified as a particularly significant contributory factor, meaning that workers in the likes of meat plants face an unusually high risk of developing CTS.

There is also a growing body of evidence that intense computer use for several hours a day over a number of years can lead to CTS.

Can I claim damages from my employer if I have developed CTS?

Because there is so much controversy surrounding the issue of whether or not CTS is work-related, this is not a straightforward question. Under Irish law, in order to receive compensation for a work-related injury you must first of all show that you were injured because of some fault on the part of your employer and, secondly, that the symptoms which you are suffering have been caused by that injury.

For these reasons if you believe that you have developed CTS as a result of your work activities it is important that you consult a solicitor with expertise in bringing claims for work-related compensation. They will carry out a detailed review of your work history and practices and, if necessary, will retain a forensic engineer to carry out an inspection of your workplace and your work techniques to ascertain if any of the systems you have been forced to work in breach health and safety laws or are otherwise inherently unsafe. They can also carry out investigations to establish if other co-workers have suffered from similar injuries such that it should have been foreseeable to your employer that the work activities that you were obliged to undertake would give rise to CTS.

How much time do I have to bring a claim for CTS?

Because of the gradually developing nature of CTS, sufferers who seek compensation can be faced with serious difficulties if their employer claims that they are out of time for bringing a claim.

This is because the Statute of Limitations provides that you have two years from the date upon which you learned that you had suffered a significant injury within which to bring a claim. However, the meaning of ‘significant’ is not defined and has to be determined depending on the circumstances of each case.

If you break your leg at work due to your employer’s negligence it’s easy to know precisely how much time you have to bring a claim for compensation. However, if you’ve been experiencing symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome for several months which were initially very mild but have grown progressively worse as time went on, knowing when your two-year window of opportunity commenced can be very difficult to establish.

For this reason, if you have been diagnosed with CTS and you suspect that it may be work-related, you should consult a solicitor specialising in work-related compensation claims without delay.