Common workplace injuries and common sense

Friday, Feb. 7, 2014 12:56 AM

By Karen Childress

Getting hurt anywhere is a pain – literally – but when it happens in the workplace an injury can be disruptive not only to the person who suffers the misfortune, but also to the employer. The inconvenience associated with workers compensation follow-up care and the paperwork involved with an on-the-job injury complicates matters, and costs can be substantial. In 2012, almost 3 million non-fatal workplace injuries were reported in the U.S. (Bureau of Labor Statistics). A researcher at the University of California, J. Paul Leigh, estimated in a study he conducted that the costs of occupational injuries and illnesses add up to $250 billion per year.

According to Southwest Memorial Hospital emergency department physician Todd Fowler, MD, the most common workplace injury he and his colleagues see in the ER is back strain.

“It’s usually due to someone doing something they shouldn’t be doing like lifting something that’s too heavy for one person or lifting without good form,” said Fowler. “Back injuries are the most common across the board in the U.S. as far as workers compensation claims go.”

The good news is that most back injuries that occur on the job are not serious.

“It’s usually a strain or ligament problem and will get better with time,” said Fowler. These injuries are treated with over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication and occasionally with a muscle relaxer or short course of narcotics.

Next on the list in terms of common workplace injuries are those involving the upper extremities, frequently shoulders and hands.

“People hurt their shoulders while lifting and they get lacerations, contusions, and fractures of the hand,” said Fowler.

Hand injuries often involve machinery or heavy equipment.

Among farmers and ranchers, Fowler says he treats quite a few hand injuries that are the result of unfortunate encounters with irrigation equipment. “The hand will be cut or pinched or crushed,” he said. Depending on the type of injury and the severity, treatment may involve suturing, splinting, and pain medication. Workers with severe hand injuries requiring surgery may be referred to an orthopedic or hand surgeon.

Injuries of the feet and ankles occur fairly regularly in the workplace. “Something falls onto the foot or someone slips or trips,” said Fowler. Something as simple as stepping off a piece of equipment and landing the wrong way can result in an ankle sprain or fracture. This time of year (well, if we were actually having winter, that is) slipping and falling on patches of ice while working outside are also a common cause of workplace injuries.

“Most ankle sprains don’t require surgery,” said Fowler. Foot and ankle fractures, however, may require an orthopedic surgeon or podiatrist to get involved. It depends on the severity of the fracture.

Fowler says he treats quite a few eye injuries that occur on the job, the most frequent one being a foreign body in the eye. “It might be sawdust or a small piece of metal,” said Fowler. “We do our best to remove it and can usually get it out. Occasionally we’ll refer someone to an ophthalmologist because they have better tools.” Sometimes an eye injury is just a scratch on the cornea. Either way, eye injuries tend to be quite painful. “We treat them with antibiotic drops or ointment and pain medication. Fortunately, eye injuries usually heal quickly – within a few days,” said Fowler. Wearing eye protection on the job is very important, but Fowler says even with protection injuries sometimes occur.

Coming in at fifth place on the most common list is head injuries. “These are usually caused by someone falling or having something hit them on the head,” said Fowler. Concussion is the main concern with any head injury. “If someone is knocked out for an extended period of time of vomiting after a head injury they should be seen by a doctor,” said Fowler. “We usually do a CT scan of the head on those patients.” If an individual is hit on the head, not knocked unconscious, and does not have vomiting or confusion, a CT scan may not be required. “Even if a CT scan is normal, patients may have post-concussion symptoms such as nausea, headaches, dizziness and blurry vision,” said Fowler. “It all depend on how hard they were hit.” Most people slowly bounce back from a concussion and pain and nausea symptoms can be treated in the meantime if needed.

The bottom line

Be careful at work. Follow the safety procedures and guidelines provided by your employer and if you do suffer an injury at work, report it to a supervisor or business owner immediately.

Southwest Health Notes is a public service feature provided by Southwest Memorial Hospital in Cortez, Colorado. The information provided herein is not intended as patient-specific medical advice or as a substitute for consultation with your personal health-care provider.