A federal appellate court agreed that a Tennessee employer may require workers to report their injuries more quickly than the 30-day time limit allowed under Tennessee’s workers’ compensation laws. (Geronimo v. Caterpillar Inc., 6th Cir. No. 09-6401, 9/7/11). The court rejected the employee’s claims of retaliation and wrongful discharge for terminating an employee for failing to report that she had symptoms of gradual-onset carpal tunnel syndrome. The case is encouraging for employers, because the court allowed the employer to enforce its time limitations, although the employee’s condition was based on a health condition that involved a gradual-onset of symptoms.

The employee had worked for the company for more than seven years when she transferred positions within the company. On the first day of her new position, she began to feel pain in her hands. Over the following two weeks, the employee’s pain remained relatively mild and occurred only when she was gripping machine parts. However, her pain later grew more intense and her periods of pain began to last longer. Approximately a month after transferring to her new position, the employee visited the employer’s on-staff nurse and complained that she was experiencing pain and that it kept her awake at night. The employee advised the nurse that she had not reported the pain earlier because she thought the condition would improve and she did not want to jeopardize her job.

The employer terminated the employee the next day because she had failed to communicate her injury in a timely manner. The employee admitted she had attended mandatory meetings and trainings in which she was informed of the company’s rules requiring her to report her injuries immediately, or as soon as she was are of it and suspected that it was work-related.

The court explained that the state’s workers’ compensation law provided the employee had a 30-day window in which to file a workers’ compensation claim with the state from the date of the injury, or from the date the employee knew or should have known that her injury was caused by her work. However, the court also explained that the state statute did not forbid an employer from imposing its own, more stringent notice requirements for workplace injuries. The court reasoned that the employee’s interpretation of the statute would allow employees to aggravate their injuries by continuing to work, thereby possibly endangering their colleagues and preventing their employers from providing potential remedies at the earliest possible date.

The court’s decision was based on an interpretation of one state’s law and may not apply to all jurisdictions; however, it reminds us all of the importance of not only having a written policy requiring employees to report workplace accidents in a timely manner, but also reminds us that such policies should be enforced in a uniform manner.