More than 5,000 workers in Ohio, including more than 500 in this region, have filed workers’ compensation claims for amputation injuries since 2005, according to data analyzed by the Dayton Daily News.
Amputation injuries often are not life-threatening and involve workers losing part of their fingertips or thumbs, officials said.
But some workers each year lose fingers, toes, hands and feet in workplace accidents, and amputation injuries often are among the most severe and debilitating workplace injuries. Amputation injuries are most common in industries in which employees must operate equipment with mechanical components or handle heavy materials.
Southwest Ohio is reliant on heavy industry, and most local people who filed amputation-related workers’ compensation claims were employed in manufacturing, construction, transportation and utilities.
But safety experts said most work-related injuries are preventable, and too often they occur because employees do not have the proper training or safety equipment.
“In the majority of the cases, the hazards can be identified and the risk can be mitigated through various levels of protection,” said Abe Al-Tarawneh, superintendent of the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensations Division of Safety and Hygiene.
Carma Wilbert, 55, of Dayton, worked at Custom Finishing Inc. in Dayton in 2002, where she was required to operate a plastic injection molding machine, according to a lawsuit she brought against her ex-employer and the company that owned the machine.
Wilbert said her right hand became caught in the machine and her pinkie and ring fingers were severed.
The molding machine Wilbert had to operate was unsafe and substantially certain to cause injury because its guarding was removed, said Brian Miller, a personal injury plaintiffs attorney in Columbus who represented her.
He said Wilbert also received no training on proper operation of the machine, and the machine was altered in a way that eliminated a safety procedure.
“Everybody is going to make a mistake in life,” Miller said. “If you are in an inherently dangerous situation, you have to create safety guards that prevent catastrophic injury when people make mistakes.”
Injured workers often return
Like Wilbert, thousands of U.S. workers every year lose body parts after they are crushed by heavy objects, caught in machinery or struck by moving parts, according to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration.
Between 2005 and 2012, the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation accepted about 5,405 workers’ compensation claims for amputation injuries, including 526 from employees in Butler, Champaign, Clark, Greene, Miami, Montgomery and Warren counties, bureau data show.
The data include many minor injuries where some kind of amputation occurred, including when workers lose part of a fingertip and do not require a significant amount of time off of work.
But some workers are badly injured on the job, which results in a loss of limb or digit.
In 2004, two employees of Miami Valley Steel Service in Piqua lost the tips of their fingers in the same week when their gloved hands were pulled into slitter line recoilers, according to OSHA records.
In 2008, an employee of Ice Industries Deerfield in Mason, formerly Deerfield Manufacturing, suffered a finger amputation when a metal sheet moved into a slotting position and severed the digit, OSHA said.
Both companies were cited by OSHA for serious workplace safety violations.
Both companies each had four amputation-injury workers’ compensation claims in the last seven years, more than any other local companies, state data show.
Most workers in this region who file amputation injury claims are employed by manufacturers, construction firms and transportation or utility companies, the data show.
Miami Valley Steel and Ice Industries did not return requests for comment.
Unguarded equipment is one of the most common sources of severe physical wounds that result in amputation, said Bill Wilkerson, OSHA’s area director for the Cincinnati office.
“You must respect powerful equipment,” he said. “And if it doesn’t have a guard on it, you don’t want to work anywhere around it, where your hand could come into contact with it.”
Wilkerson said 15 to 20 percent of his office’s work is inspecting the safeguards on mechanical equipment at employers in his 20-county jurisdiction.
He said amputations often occur because employers fail to ensure equipment guards are installed and functioning, or workers do not properly use the safety equipment or abide by safe work procedures.
“The problem is people do a lot of things with their hands,” Wilkerson said. “Oftentimes, people have the tendency to overestimate their own capabilities or underestimate the (danger of) the situation.”
Depending on the severity of the damage, workers who suffer amputation injuries can face long-term medical or emotional issues and rehabilitation.
Some workers become physically unable to perform certain kinds of jobs, while others lose the ability to work at all.
In Ohio, workers who are badly injured on the job may have their medical bills and a portion of their lost wages paid for by the state worker’s compensation system, assuming they are covered. The system only covers between 60 to 65 percent of Ohio workers. Many employers are self-insured.
But the state system does not compensate workers for all of the hardships stemming from a severe injury, said Miller, with Brian G. Miller Co., LPA.
“You don’t get non-economic damages — the intangibles, the pain and suffering — compensation for anxiety, loss of enjoyment of life and an ability to perform ordinary activities, things of that nature,” he said. “When you lose a limb or a digit or part of a limb, obviously there is a huge difficulty adjusting to that.”
Wilbert sued Custom Finishing and the company that owned the machine she operated, Plastic Trim, as well as a few other parties. She reached a settlement with Plastic Trim in 2006, and dismissed her lawsuit.
But Miller said a 2005 change in tort law has since made it harder for employees to sue their employers, because now they must show the employers acted with intent to harm.
Miller said it is not surprising that many amputation injuries occur in industrial settings because of the nature of the work. But he said employers must utilize guarding and safety procedures to reduce the potential for life-changing injuries when workers may mistakes.
“It is going to be a complete freak accident if I lose a hand or an arm because I make a mistake at work — because I sit behind a desk and go into a courtroom,” he said. “But the guy who is on an assembly line, or the guy who works a punch press or the woman on a conveyor belt, if they make a mistake they will get hurt.”
Al-Tarawneh said many people who suffer amputation injuries on the job want to return to work, and the workers’ compensation system will help fulfill that goal.
“The majority of them are rehabilitated and they go back to work with the same spirit they used to have,” he said. “(Our) system jumps in and takes care of them and takes care of their family until they get well enough to go back to work.”
|Amputation workers' compensation claims by county|
|Source: Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation|