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Maryland lawmakers want to change workers comp for when hernias happen at work

The Maryland State House in Annapolis.
Matt Bush
The Maryland State House in Annapolis.

Maryland workers’ compensation laws treat hernias very differently than other injuries that can happen on the job. Supporters of changing that argue the time frame is too narrow, stopping many from receiving deserved compensation for their pain.

Carmine D’Alessandro is the chief legal officer for Chesapeake Employers Insurance, the largest workers’ compensation insurer in Maryland. He explained during a Senate Finance Committee hearing Feb. 21, the special status hernias are treated with under Maryland workers' compensation law.

“70-80 years ago, the courts determined that for hernias, we would restrict compensation for hernias to accidents noticed, and reported at or near the time of the occurrence,” D’Alessandro said.

The current length of time a worker has to file a claim after an incident on the job that caused the hernia is 45 days. That’s regardless of what type it is — the traditional one officially called inguinal hernia, where there is a tear in the abdominal wall. Or what’s commonly called a sports hernia [athletic pubalgia], which involves tears in the soft tissue in the abdomen or groin area that can develop over time.

Montgomery County Democratic Sen. Ben Kramer says 45 days is much too narrow a timeframe for either type of injury.

“Oftentimes the hernia can be a consequence of a muscle connection that over time is just slowly worn down and torn by repeated stress or trauma, to the point it eventually ruptures,” Kramer told WYPR.

Kramer is the sponsor of a billthat extends the timeframe workers’ compensation claims can be filed to 45 days after the diagnosis of a hernia, not 45 days from the time it occurred.

“Our hernia definition is tied to a single incident and it has to be reported within a limited timeframe of a single incident,” Kramer said. “The issue with repeated trauma is that it doesn’t get tied to a single incident.”

If the measure is approved by the General Assembly and the Governor, it would take effect on October 1, 2023.

Construction is one field where hernias can be common. Another is firefighting.

Jeff Buddle of the Maryland Professional Firefighters Association, the union that represents over 10,000 firefighters across the state, spoke in support of the bill at the Senate Finance Committee hearing.

“What we’re finding is that many of our firefighters are developing hernias over time,” Buddle said. “Through repetitive lifting, sharp movements, heavy lifting, stuff like that. And under the case law mentioned, you can’t even file a claim with the [workers’ compensation] commission. They won’t even hear it if it’s the type of hernia that a firefighter develops over time through repetitive lifting or strain.”

But insurers like Chesapeake are against making changes.

During that same Senate Finance Committee hearing, D’Alessandro argued extending the timeline will only lead to more litigation, for both employers and workers.

“When you have carpal tunnel, and you’ve been typing for 10 years, you know where that carpal tunnel came from,” D’Alessandro said. “If you’ve been operating a jackhammer, you know where that carpal tunnel came from. If you’re talking about a lifting injury that causes a hernia months, years down the road, there’s no way of knowing where that hernia was caused. So employers would not know who would be responsible.”

Carpal tunnel is already treated the way hernias would be under his bill according to Kramer. And he argues workers should be allowed to file compensation claims for the similar cumulative injury in the same manner.

“That will be up to the workers compensation commission to take a look at each individual case to determine if there are multiple employers…which of those multiple employers may have been the source for the majority of the injury,” Kramer said. “Or it could be looking at when the injury finally manifested itself, the employer of the individual at that time.”

Matt Bush spent 14 years in public radio prior to coming to WYPR as news director in October 2022. From 2008 to 2016, he worked at Washington D.C.’s NPR affiliate, WAMU, where he was the station’s Maryland reporter. He covered the Maryland General Assembly for six years (alongside several WYPR reporters in the statehouse radio bullpen) as well as both Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties. @MattBushMD
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