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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

In his own hands

Nathan Cooke has self-managed not only his personal workplace safety, but also a debilitating occupational injury, reports ANGELA GREGORY.

Most men don’t want nagging pains let alone a nagging wife – but Nathan Cooke credits the latter for getting treatment for the former. The Wellington spray painter had for years suffered from annoying numbness and tingling in the fingers of his right hand, which developed into stabbing pains and sleepless nights.

Over a decade ago Cooke’s concerned wife first raised her suspicions the condition might be related to his job, and urged him to seek medical advice. “If not for her I would have just put up with it.”

When Cooke went to his doctor he was told he had carpal tunnel syndrome – where the median nerve which runs from the forearm into the hand becomes pressed or squeezed. This nerve supplies feeling and movement to parts of the hand.

The typical symptoms include numbness and the need to “shake out” the hand, exactly as described by Cooke: “It started with pins and needles, and sensations down the sides of my fingers. I had numbness and then it all progressed to stabbing pains. I couldn’t sleep at night and the only relief was getting up out of bed and shaking my arm.”

Cooke says three doctors stated in their views that his condition was directly related to his work. They included occupation physician Professor Bill Glass, who told Safeguard he had absolutely no doubt that it resulted from Cooke’s job as a spray painter.

However ACC had not seen it that way and declined to accept Cooke’s claim. He regrets not appealing the decision and feels “quite bitter” towards ACC, wondering what is required to be taken seriously. “I am disappointed as I was a genuine case. I ask myself what could I have done to prove it … it seems crazy.”

Cooke has been a furniture spray painter in Wellington for over 20 years. The job requires constant squeezing of the gun, at times at awkward angles. “It affects your wrist.”

He says production lines could have been better designed to allow him to spray the items if they were lying down flat, but that was not a cost-effective solution. “It is okay to do one or two jobs upright but there are problems when there are 50 or 60. I am working at the end of the line and the job needs to be done quickly to get the order out. I felt the weight of responsibility.”

Cooke also chose to do overtime to make sure orders were filled, and admits the extra income was handy. He worked with the pain and meanwhile tried to deal with the problems as best he could.

Acupuncture helped a little but was expensive as it required ongoing sessions. He had to take painkillers as he could not sleep, which was affecting his personal life. “The pills ended up mucking up my mind … I wasn’t thinking clearly.”

Cooke even taught himself to spray with his left hand. “Otherwise I would have just had to quit.”

Earlier this year Cooke decided to go private and pay for an operation on his wrist. “The surgeon said it was the worst case of carpal tunnel he had come across.” On a positive note, he says the surgery has worked wonders. “It seems to have fixed the problem.”.

He doubted his employers ever believed he was in pain, as other spray painters had not complained, or such symptoms were only associated with staff who used computers.

Cooke says he has learned to look after himself on the job, and is basically his own health and safety manager and workplace inspector. He just orders up the best PPE he can source, such as air-fed face masks which he credits for not having any isocyanate exposure symptoms. Cooke also changed his spray guns to lighter models, with softer triggers and swivel joints.

However most of his spray painter mates don’t take their health and safety so seriously. “They think they’re bullet proof,” he says. Some in Cooke’s view are already showing signs of solvent exposure. “They’re a bit brain dead.”

Cooke believes there is still a big OHS problem in local industries, and not enough enforcement from the DoL. “They’re really good at saying when they’re coming … businesses just get ready for them.”

ACC’s response…

While Cooke gave permission for Safeguard to talk to ACC about his file, a spokesman responded they could not comment as in accordance with its records management policy, the paper records relating to his claim had been destroyed as they were more than 10 years old.

ACC instead provided some key criteria for determining cover for work-related gradual process injuries/ conditions, including that they must be work-related, and the exposure was to a causal agent over a period of time.

In a carpal tunnel syndrome claim, ACC would be checking that there was a specific factor in the work environment, not present outside of work, that caused the injury/condition, and that the risk of acquiring the injury/condition was significantly greater within the work environment.


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