U.S. Postal Service injuries: The Durable Body

Have you ever seen those videos depicting mechanized arms repetitively opening and closing a car door in order to test the durability of an automobile’s structural soundness?  Robots and automation have replaced such testing scenarios; for, in the “old days”, you can imagine a “quality assurance specialist” opening and closing, opening and closing the door, the hood, the trunk, etc., to make sure that it doesn’t fall apart — and in the meantime, doing grave damage to the inspector’s own anatomy because of repetitive stress upon doing the same job over and over again.

Flat sorting machines at USPS distribution centersThe human body has often been marveled at.  If from a religious viewpoint, it is perfection created in the image of a perfect being.  If from an evolutionary standpoint, it is the result of a lengthy elimination of genetic mishaps through trial-and-error consummated by a process where the survival of the “fittest” wins out.  Yet, every functional anatomy — whether made of human flesh, of mechanical apparatus or a combination of both (what was once referred to as “bionic” limbs) — has its limitations, and whether the human body was meant to undergo repetitive usage necessitated by the requirements of employment is a question to be pondered.

U.S. Postal workers are exposed to a unique hazard — that of repetitive stress injuries.  Such injuries or medical conditions are caused by the human anatomy engaging in repeated movements and motions performed over and over again, whether for employment or in daily living activities.  The effects culminating from such activities are often identified as “repetitive stress injuries”, or sometimes as “cumulative trauma disorders”, “repetitive motion disorders” or “overuse syndromes”.  However one terms it, the resultant consequences encapsulate a wide range of medical conditions and injuries which impact muscles, ligaments, tendons, nerves, and the structural integrity of interconnective tissues which make the miracle of the human body work.

U.S. Postal workers are particularly susceptible to such injuries, precisely because they must engage in such repetitive motions and movements in the daily course of their craft.  The result?  Various medical conditions arise, including (but certainly not exhaustively limited to):

Postal workers who suffer from such injuries are often faced with multiple challenges:  As injuries often mount once a single medical condition begins to develop (the known phenomena of, “When it rains, it pours”), and as age begins to play a factor in one’s career (can one make it to age 56 with 30 years of repetitive stress?), can it be proven that such injuries are occupationally-related?  And what about the phenomena of the “last straw that broke the camel’s back”?  You know — you work as a letter carrier for 25 years and have been feeling sore knees for quite some time, but on a bright and sunny day you decide to challenge your teenage son to a pick-up game on the basketball court and twist your knee.  Question:  Was it really that overenthusiastic jump shot that resulted in a jarring crunch to the knee, or the 25 years of walking 10 – 20 miles on concrete surfaces that ended with a bum knee?  Of course, the Emergency Room Report notes that the “individual comes in today with right knee pain; says he was playing basketball with his son when…”.

Was the human body meant for decades of repetitive activities or motions?  Certainly, there are mitigating ways of working that one should be aware of when first a person takes on a career which will require repetitive work.  But, then, when we were 20 or so, who ever thought that we were less than invincible, indestructible, and of an enduring quantity?  The Mail Processing Clerk, the Mail Handler, the Letter Carrier, the Flat Sorter (Automation), the Electronic Technician — in his or her early days, could do the job, come home and jog 5 miles for leisure and relaxation.  Then, into one’s 30s, perhaps the tinge of soreness and hint of fatigue forced you to cut back to less strenuous activities; and by 40 or so, watching a football game was preferable to actively playing the sport, with a compromise that “gardening” was just as healthy and walking to the grocery store was good exercise as well.  Days and weeks go by; and months turn into years.  Throughout, without being fully conscious of the consequences, you have been engaging in uninterrupted repetitions of movements and activities at work which involves extensive overexertion often at the expense of proper posture or adequate rest.  Singular or multiple symptoms begin to appear:  Pain; aching that will not go away; tenderness at various sites; stiffness that cannot be stretched-away; throbbing; tingling; persistent pain; numbness; loss of sleep because of the high distractibility of pain; fatigue that borders on profound fatigue.

You are suffering from Repetitive Stress Injury.

Whether the impact is upon your shoulder, neck, back, fingers, wrists elbows, ankles, feet or some other part of your anatomy, the miracle of the durable body has begun to reveal its structural vulnerabilities.  When that realization comes to light, the distance between what you have accomplished and the goal of retirement becomes a seemingly insurmountable gap.  Filing for Federal Disability Retirement under FERS may be the best option for the Postal worker who can no longer endure the repetition required of a craft employee — or even of Managers, Supervisors and Postmasters.  It is a benefit which must be fought for and proven — that you are no longer able to perform one or more of the essential elements of your positional requirements.  The human body was ultimately never intended for endless repetitive stress, and for the Postal worker who suffers an injury or medical condition resulting from a workplace injury — or even from an off-site injury from a pick-up basketball game ( remember that eligibility for disability retirement, unlike Worker’s Compensation, does not depend upon the medical condition being work-related), consider the benefit of filing for Federal Disability Retirement with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

 

Federal Disability Retirement for the U.S. Postal Service: What it is and Why the Benefit is Necessary

     How well must a man know his neighbor before he sheds a tear?  Does a man possess humanity merely because he walks upright and speaks well?  What is the gauge, the calculus, the determining factor, as to whether human beings have advanced?  Is it the extent of mechanization, how fast we can travel, how beautiful our technology is designed?  If a man fails to shed a tear, is he more advanced because he possesses less of an ability to exhibit his emotions?  When does a man stop representing humanity?  Or, shall we alter the named designation, and perhaps reorder our self-conception of what it means for us to “be human”?

                                                            From, Questions to Ponder in Human Terms

Postal Workers hold a unique position in the workforce.  While the timeless image of the postman walking with a friendly smile may be a fading memory, replaced by community mailboxes situated at the end of the cul-de-sac, curbside mailboxes (and various other methods to distance any intrusion into the antiseptic lives of each neighborhood), the daily contact with the U.S. Postal Service still pervades.  Despite electronic methods of replacement, email, texting, tweeting, and multiple other means of communication, the letter which arrives is still sorted, processed, transported and delivered by people – those who work at the U.S. Postal Service.

The five minutes out of the week, month or year when the average person sees a Postal employee – perhaps the Window Clerk when tax time comes around; perhaps to send something overnight; or to renew a passport – whatever the reason, such limited contact fails to betray the extent and toll of how physical and stressful the U.S. Postal jobs are.  Considering the medical impact upon one’s neck, back, shoulders, knees, wrists, etc., it is important to recognize the type of positional duties that the Postal Clerk, Letter Carrier, Mail Handler, various Motor Vehicle Operators, Heavy Equipment Operators, Expediters, or Mail Processing Clerks, among many other craft employees, must engage in on a daily basis.  The wear and tear upon the physical body; the daily stresses and mental toll resulting from time pressures, shortage of workers, overtime requirements, difficult interpersonal engagement between Supervisors, Managers and Craft employees; customer services communications; and the daily pressures of rigorous work in a fast-paced, competitive environment.  Criticism abounds these days about the Neanderthal status of the U.S. Postal Service, and some of it may be justified.  Yet, whether justified or not, it has nothing to do with the type of physical, emotional and psychological impact that the daily positional duties have upon individual lives.

Or, take the Postmaster of a small postal facility – the one who must fill in for the craft employees, work the customer service window, and perform the daily administrative duties in repetitive, unrelenting fashion on a daily basis, with reduction and attrition of the workforce, without replacement workers to fill in for absences, sick leave, annual leave, etc.  Or the Rural Carrier who must twist and turn one’s upper body, grasping, turning and reaching to place bundles of mail into mail boxes, mile after endless mile.  It is, indeed, a miracle that the human body can withstand such repetitive wearing upon muscular tissue, bone structure, nerve endings, layers of cartilage, etc., and year after year, be able to allow the individual to perform the progressively deteriorating repetitive functions which are required by the Postal Service.  We haven’t even mentioned the constant walking, mile upon mile, of the letter carrier; the walking up and down stairs, steps; of entering and exiting a motor vehicle repeatedly throughout the day.

Federal Disability Retirement benefits are a needed benefit for all Postal employees, precisely because of the unique type of physical, emotional and psychological requirements of the craft, supervisor and managerial positions at the U.S. Postal Service.   The human toll is something which the public, casual, limited and fleeting in its contact with the Postal employee, is unaware of, and unable to comprehend in its magnification of repetitive tasks throughout the course of processing, distributing and delivering of that piece of mail which arrives at the doorstep.

One might pose the query as to why the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act, administered by the Office of Worker’s Compensation Program (OWCP) under the aegis of the Department of Labor, is not sufficient to adequately compensate Postal employees when they are injured on the job.  It may well be.  But the problem is that not every medical condition can be causally proven to be related directly to the human toll resulting from the daily, repetitive, pounding deterioration by the type of Postal work and duties required.  Consider the following hypothetical:  A Mail Handler who is 48 years old and who has been working at his job for 25 years is moving a piece of furniture at the direction of his spouse.  In the course of lifting, he feels a sudden “pull” in his back, and is forced to sit down.  The piece of furniture remains in the middle of the room somewhat askew, evident that a job has been left incomplete.  The MRI reveals a disc protrusion at L5-S1, with multi-level disc degeneration, chronic pain, and radiating pain and numbness extending to his extremities.  The emergency room notes reflect the history of the medical occurrence:  “…while moving heavy furniture…”  But is that truly the causal connection?  Did the 25 years of constant bending, lifting, reaching, pulling, pushing, grasping, etc., have no medical significance, no cumulative effect?  The doctor could not relate the multi-level disc degeneration and chronic pain to his work.  OWCP, in any event, would deny such a claim outright, asserting unequivocally:  “No causal connection could be found between your medical condition and the nature, origin and type of medical injury from which you suffer.”

In real life, the Postal Worker who suffers from the hypothetical as described above, would have no viable alternative means to securing a livelihood.  The U.S. Postal Service, under the present National Reassessment Program, would refuse to accommodate such a Postal Worker, and would send him/her home, stating that, “After a full review, it has been determined by the District Reasonable Accommodation Committee that no suitable work can be found within the limitations imposed by your medical condition, and therefore the U.S. Postal Service is unable to accommodate you.”

Such hypotheticals are not mere imaginary flights of fancy; they in fact occur, and all too frequently.  That is why Federal Disability Retirement is a needed benefit for the U.S. Postal Worker.  Federal Disability Retirement is a benefit, however, which must be proven by a preponderance of the evidence to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, that the medical condition suffered by the Postal Worker, whether under FERS or CSRS (A) prevents him or her from performing one or more of the essential elements of the job, (B) that the medical condition is expected to last for a minimum of 12 months or more, and (C) that, whether suffered on or off the job, related to the job or not, the Postal Worker has a minimum of 18 months of Federal Service under FERS, and a minimum of 5 years of Federal Service under CSRS.

Federal Disability Retirement benefits pays a Postal Worker 60% of the average of his or her highest-3 consecutive years for the first year of annuity, then 40% every year thereafter, until age 62, at which point the annuity it recalculated based upon the total number of years of service (including the years one is receiving Federal Disability Retirement benefits).  It is, however, a benefit which must be proven, and as such, is not an “entitlement”, but a benefit which must be secured by sufficient medical evidence, adequate knowledge of the governing laws, and a clear nexus between one’s medical condition and the essential elements of one’s job.