"What else was I supposed to do," said Karen, the woman to whom I was offering career counseling. Karen is a 44-year-old, former long-term factory worker. She had a habit of looking at her watch every few minutes.
"I knew the repetitive motion was hurting my hands and wrists, but all my life, all I have ever done is hard labor work and I had this last job for nine years. It paid good and when you are a single parent, you do what you have to do."
Karen said she noticed after the first year her hands would go numb, especially in the middle of the night. "Ifigured it was just aging," she said.
She started seeing the doctor when her hands started to hurt. She tried medication and the doctor advised several absences from work. At first, the symptoms would clear up and Karen would return to work, then the pain became constant and nothing seemed to help.
"I just figured I had to live with it and kept working, but now, I can hardly use my hands at all," Karen admitted. "My employer doesn't have any work for me, so I am out of work and have a permanent injury."
Making Hard Choices
This is a very sad and familiar story in my line of work. Injured workers with permanent injuries related to repetitive motion and strain and cumulative trauma injuries come in expecting career and job miracles after the irreversible damage has been done and medical science has let them down.
Many injured workers have shed tears in my presence in recounting their horrible injury and treatment ordeals. Many of these people are still in their chronological prime of life and still at the height of their careers. The final straw is when the hope dies as their physician gives them the bad news that everyone hates to hear and rips their hearts out with, "There is nothing else we can do. You will just have to learn to live with it." Being a career counselor, the questions that I get asked are, "How am I supposed to work?" and "Who is ever going to hire me?" There are no easy answers at this point.
When asked the question, "What would you do if you had a choice between your line of work or your health?" most of us would choose our health. So, knowing the danger, why do people choose to risk permanent injury over their occupation? Here are a few reasons:
- Bad economy I am lucky to have a job, I better stay here
- Age I'm too old. No one will hire me
- Experience This is all I've ever done.
- Low self-esteem I don't know how to do anything else
- Stubbornness I worked too long and hard to get here
- Inflexibility I was born to do this work and that's it
- Denial It will go away
- Relationships My friends all work here
- Financial I won't find a better paying job
Prevention is the Best Cure
Do not let employees reach the point where they must choose between their jobs or their health. Encourage them to take responsibility for their health and report symptoms before injuries reach the point of no return. Help them find accommodations or another position within the company that does not aggravate the symptoms or injury.
If employers are not willing to make changes or accommodations, as a career counselor, I advise employees to find other jobs just as soon as possible. There is help available to get another line of work. I suggest employees contact their local vocational schools, government job service and social service agencies. There may be people there with qualifications and credentials that can help them make lateral or vertical career moves.
Employees can also look in the phone book and find a career counselor or a vocational evaluator. I advise them to go get assessed and tested, even spend some money if they have to. If they could do it over again, these injured workers would gladly pay a little money up front when faced with permanent injury and chronic pain.
If they have to, I suggest they get some training or re-training now and not wait for the ship to sink to start working on their lifeboats. I tell them to choose a training field that builds on their strengths and stays away from their weakness, including their injury susceptibility. Get the training and make the move before anything further happens.
And above all, I counsel employees to rely on themselves. I tell them: Do not rely on your employer or a government program to take care of you and your family for the rest of your life. If you have a generous employer and he will do that, terrific. If you qualify for the government program assistance and it meets your needs, fine. But too many times, you cannot count on them to come to your rescue. The only one you can rely on, and you will learn this sooner or later, is yourself.
Ask any injured work in constant life-long pain what they would do if they had the chance to go back and start all over again. Universally, they will tell you: "You can always get another job, but once your health is gone, it's gone."
About the author: Marshall J. Karp, MA NCC LPC is a career counselor in Dover, Ohio. During his 18 years in private practice, he has counseled hundreds of clients from social service agencies and Bureau of Workers' Compensation referrals, in particular, clients suffering from Repetitive Motion Syndrome.