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I’m in the US and, due to the wonders of the American healthcare system, that will impact the answer.

I’m a desk jockey - I write code. For the holidays, I got a fancy new mechanical keyboard. While reaching under my desk at work to plug it in, I pulled a back muscle so hard, I basically could not move.

I took Advil and waited, but it just got worse. I finally called my HMO’s advice nurse line and as soon as I mentioned I was at work, she suddenly stopped asking me about my symptoms or giving me advice, and started talking to me about workman’s comp, how this could be my employer’s responsibility, etc... she basically became a wall. Frustrated, I just hung up and went to urgent care (I slooowly got in my girlfriend's car and she drove me).

A couple muscle relaxants later, I’m basically OK, but my question is, why did this happen? If my job were moving boxes or handling heavy machinery and I got hurt, then sure, I understand how this could be my employer’s responsibility. But in this case, I really don’t see it that way and I couldn’t get anything out of the advice nurse. Does merely getting hurt at work even if it has nothing to do with your job mean it’s on the employer?

In the end, I am just really annoyed that before getting relief for the pain, I had to go through

  • Where did this happen?
  • Did you tell your employer?

etc...

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Dec 29 '18 at 6:17
40

First and foremost: I am not a lawyer.

You're in the U.S., but you don't say what state, so I'll speak from my experience (having been in your exact situation) in Ohio, but you might have a different experience (for example, California has much more pro-worker workers' comp laws).

First: report the injury to your employer. Regardless of whether it qualifies as workers' comp or not, they will need to be aware. If you have a large employer there will probably be a dedicated person on staff who will start handling these things. Additionally, your employer is most probably required to report the injury to a state-level BWC office. In Ohio, an employer is required to report the injury to BWC if it caused 7 or more days of disability (that does not just mean "time off work") or death.

Second: you'll be assigned a case-worker, talk to them. They will help you. Once you get a case-worker their job is literally only to get you help. Call them, talk to them, tell them what happened. Ohio has a huge boatload of rules about what you, your case-worker, and your employer must do.

Third: in Ohio, most injuries you receive at work are covered. Here's a human-speak version that isn't as lawyer-ey:

Back injuries – U.S. workers often complain of lower back pain caused by the strain of lifting heavy objects while at work. Whether the injury was caused by a blow, jolt, or sudden stress, or if it developed over time through repetitive movements and carrying heavy objects, you may be eligible for compensation for herniated discs, fractured vertebrae, sprains, strains and other problems.

Directly from the Ohio BWC (emphasis mine):

Under Ohio workers' compensation law, when a claim is filed with BWC, all medical conditions requested in a claim are considered alleged until a determination is made either allowing or disallowing them.

And (again, emphasis mine):

Allowances are medical conditions recognized as directly resulting from a compensable work-related injury or occupational disease. Allowances are supported by medical documentation submitted by providers. Allowances are also referred to as allowed conditions and allowed diagnoses.

If your state is anything like that, what it basically means is that the BWC (not your employer!) will decide what claims are "allowable". As an example, I tore an inguinal hernia doing a task that was loosely related to my job description, and I was in fact not obligated to do said task, but BWC took the injury as an allowable claim, and they paid for all of my medical expenses.

Edit: you say you are in California, so there's a whole (well put-together, I should add) booklet that talks about your benefits and such:

Workers' Compensation in California: A Guidebook for Injured Workers

I want to highlight this part (emphasis mine, from page 7):

“Accepting” the claim means the claims administrator agrees your injury is covered by workers’ compensation. If your claim is accepted, you will receive paid medical care for your injury. You may also eligible for payments to help make up for lost wages. To learn about these payments, see Chapter 5.

In California, much like Ohio, you don't decide if it's an eligible workers' compensation claim: the state does. So, while you may think "it's nothing", you still may be eligible for the full coverage of the medical costs you incurred (I suspect they're not particularly high, but still not 0.)

So, to answer your question:

Does merely getting hurt at work even if it has nothing to do with your job mean it’s on the employer?

While the burden to pay may or may not fall on your employer (read: employer's insurance company), neither you nor your employer make that decision: your BWC office does (read: can). Your office will weigh all factors of the case (including whether or not there is a reasonable expectation that you would have to do this type of labor on a regular or irregular basis) and make a judgment.

  • And with that said, unless you're actually working to make your employer's life difficult and unless you really intend to squeeze them for cash for this incident, I really wouldn't bother with any of this for something that got better after 36 hours and some painkillers. Your employer won't thank you for dragging HR and them through the bureaucratic workplace injury reporting gauntlet over something silly like this. If they're making you dig coal in a carcinogenic mine without PPE, fine, avail yourself of these protections, but formalizing frivolous cases like this will just piss people off. – J... Dec 28 '18 at 17:56
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    @J... In the UK at least, I've heard a different view: that employers want a (small) number of harmless accident report forms to prove that the accident reporting system is actually being used. It looks like the employer hasn't done anything seriously wrong here, so I doubt they'd be put out by doing the paperwork. – GKFX Dec 28 '18 at 21:40
  • @GKFX That sounds idiotic, to be honest. And I doubt anyone is happy having to do pointless extra work. It's a complete productivity burn with absolutely zero payback. Why bother? – J... Dec 28 '18 at 21:45
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    @J The employer may have to report their compliance with the regulations to the govt. If they report never having even minor accidents at work it will look suspicious. – Anush Dec 29 '18 at 8:22
  • @J... So at my university, there's a simple, mostly tick-box form for injuries. It's sensibly written and doesn't take very long to fill in. The department whose processes I'm most familiar with then has a scheduled time for the health and safety subcommittee to go through the most recent set of reports and determine if there are issues to be resolved. E.g. if there were multiple reports of back strain causing time off work, they'd consider improving manual handling training. It's not zero payback if you're able to reduce both sick days and the risk of being sued. – GKFX Dec 29 '18 at 19:20
175

You went under your desk to plug a keyboard in. You are using that keyboard for work. If you don't plug it in, you can't do your job. OF COURSE this is a work related accident.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Dec 30 '18 at 4:26
56

Helpdesk nurses are in the awkward position between healthcare and helpdesk, she probably has a script she has to stick to. The "got hurt at work" box on that particular flowchart likely only has one line going you of it: "The guys from Legal will chew you out if you say anything here"

Because, even in more civilized countries, getting hurt at work lands everybody involved in a massive legal quagmire of responsibilities.

In this case you probably should have called someone in the company, usually there are designated people for all first-aid related issues.

  • I've never been asked by my doctor where I got injured or if it is related to work, and I don't see why they should even care, they are a healthcare organization. I've occasionally received a followup letter from insurance asking if the injury was caused by someone else (presumably so they could seek reimbursement). But no one asked such questions when I went in for treatment. – Johnny Dec 28 '18 at 19:43
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    @Johnny A doctor isn't responsible for organizing insurance, an HMO is. Who is paying is pretty important when it comes to insurance. The HMO advice nurse is straddling the two worlds. – Matthew Read Dec 29 '18 at 23:20
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If by "why did this happen", you mean the response of your HMO's nurse (rather than the injury itself), the answer seems simple and rather obvious: the HMO wants your employer (or their insurer) to pay for the cost of treatment.

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    ...and if they instead meant the injury itself, it seems perfectly reasonable to pretend they meant the response from the HMO nurse, because the former is completely off-topic here, while the latter is not. Call it a "presumption of topicality". – T.E.D. Dec 27 '18 at 23:59
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Does merely getting hurt at work even if it has nothing to do with your job mean it’s on the employer?

It can be a legal minefield but generally yes.

Circumstances and laws may change that to a no (your fault or company not liable) or a hell yes.

For instance:

  • Did a supervisor say you may or have to plug the keyboard in?
  • Does the company have an IT department that does these kinds of things?
  • Are you allowed or prohibited to alter company equipment?
  • Did you inform your employer right away about the incident?

Disclosure: I'm not familiar with U.S. laws regarding this.

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    Everywhere I've worked (midwest USA) plugging in a keyboard was something I'd be expected to do myself. – David Thornley Dec 27 '18 at 17:38
  • If it's risky, then the employer needs to mitigate their risk! Being allowed to do something is well and good but getting hurt at work crosses the line. – elliot svensson Dec 27 '18 at 19:23
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    I don't believe any of those things would generally matter for the purpose of workers compensation in the US, which is a very different system from the normal sense of legal liability for injuries. The details depend on state law, but the injury is often covered even if the worker is violating a company safety rule at the time. – Zach Lipton Dec 27 '18 at 22:02
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    @DavidThornley I worked at (large) companies where you were PROHIBITED to change anything (software or hardware) on your workstations. If an error popped up or even if your machine crashed you were to notify IT and wait for them to fix it.Same for plugging anything in or out of the workstations.Some companies I worked at had the workstations in the server room, inaccessable to employees except IT. – DigitalBlade969 Dec 28 '18 at 10:09
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    Most large employers are not Bring Your Own Device shops and bringing in your own keyboard is a no-no unless you get approval. And even then they're more likely to have you ask IT to order it for you and have the IT guy install it. – pboss3010 Dec 28 '18 at 12:46
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Speaking to your question 'Why did this happen?':

Me: 30 years working as a massage therapist and Tai Chi instructor; delivered office/ergonomic safety seminars to colleges and corporations in the S.F. Bay Area.

You: primarily a desk worker, perhaps not in optimal physical condition.

The injury: Seemingly simple movements can be made inefficiently enough to cause injuries.

Unaccustomed bending/twisting of the lower back while ducking under the desk, as easy as it seems, is a recipe for strain injuries. Especially in people 30 and above who are not especially athletic.

I have to guess that you were not stretched or warmed up before trying to plug in the keyboard under the desk. It seems likely that you may not have used an efficient posture while reaching for the computer's USB port. Enough so to concentrate a load on one or more joints in your back or back/hip junction.

2

In my country, a government worker successfully claimed the following as a 'workplace injury': She went on a business trip with a workmate, became intimate with him in a hotel, and was injured when the associated gyrations caused a light fitting to fall from the wall above the bed and strike her on the head.

Less tongue in cheek, but my contract defines workplace injuries as "any injuries that occur during work hours, or during the commute to-and-from work."

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    This claim was ultimately denied. japantimes.co.jp/news/2013/10/30/world/… – DJohnM Dec 29 '18 at 19:51
  • Yes but apparrently it got as far as the high court, and even then 2 out of the 6 judges still thought it had merit. – gburton Dec 29 '18 at 23:53
  • Pro tip: Attach a pillow to the back of your head. – gnasher729 Dec 31 '18 at 0:08
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Most insurance companies will go ahead and process the claim and likely even pay for it, with the disclaimer that you must cooperate in all subrogation attempts. Basically they say that they're going to leave it up to both insurance companies' lawyer teams because the lawyers will know the legal ins and outs better than you, the health care professionals, or the claim handlers. Sometimes they even agree to split the cost between them. Just like everyone else said, report it asap.

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