Winter is dangerous time for work-related injuries

Local worker’s comp cases increase December to April

Patient Tom Ringwelski works with physical therapist Christy Kopischke in the new therapy room at UCHealth Occupational Medicine Clinic, which is located inside UCHealth Urgent Care in Steamboat Springs.
UCHealth/Courtesy photo

Four decades of teaching ski lessons in Steamboat Springs, and too many hours to count skiing slow and demonstrating the wedge position, have taken a toll on ski instructor Jill Lambek’s knees.

“Taking wedge turns is not a natural position to be in, and doing that so much destroys your knees. Skiing slow is hard on your knees. They got so swollen I could not walk,” said Lambek, a full-time instructor for the past 40 winter seasons.

Teaching private lessons to new or returning skiers of all ages for sometimes 14 to 20 days in row during the busy season injured Lambek’s knees due to the repetitive motion, so she filed a worker’s comp claim last spring. She received helpful treatment through UCHealth Occupational Medicine Clinic and now is back at work part time for her 41st season.

The Occupational Medicine Clinic now has a space integrated into the UCHealth Urgent Care building in south Steamboat. The clinic is one of a variety of local medical offices providing care for worker’s compensation claims with the goal of treating and training employees so they can return to work safely.

“I do feel that occupational therapy gets you healthy,” Lambeck said. “You have to do some of your own work and get on the right track and take better care of injuries. They try to make sure you can still do what you do for a living.”

Longtime local physical therapist Christy Kopischke works with patients in the recently completed therapy room at UCHealth Occupational Medicine Clinic. She said December to April is typically the busiest time of year for worker’s comp injuries, which are largely caused by slips and falls in icy conditions, repetitive motion injuries and back injuries from improper lifting techniques or lifting on uneven or slippery surfaces.

Occupational medicine care may help a worker whose shoulder was injured when hit by a ski lift chair or something as unexpected as an employee sent to the grocery store on a work errand who falls in the icy parking lot and injures a hip, Kopischke said. Any job that requires a lot of lifting, ranging from construction workers to nurses lifting patients, is also a risk factor.

Top tips to help avoid slips, falls on ice this winter

Advice from physical and occupational therapists:

1. Concentrate on the path ahead. Take your time and proceed slowly.

2. Walk flat-footed, take small steps and point toes out slightly, aka, walk like a penguin.

3. Try to carry items in a backpack to keep your hands free. Don’t text and walk outdoors.

4. Hold on to your vehicle when getting out of it. Put both feet out before standing up, rather than stepping out with one foot.

5. Wear shoes or boots with rough soles when going outside. Clean your shoes before going inside or change your shoes, as caked-on snow or ice can cause a fall inside the door.

6. Use handrails wherever available.

7. Use a walking stick or even ski poles to help feel steadier when taking a walk outside.

8. Assume all wet, dark areas on the pavement may be slippery with black ice patches.

9. Identify areas around your home or business that are subject to a freeze and thaw cycle, such as areas that drip from the roof that can lead to slippery patches.

Ted Morton, practice administrator at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, said although worker injuries ebb and flow through the year, the winter season normally has more work-related injuries due to an uptick in area employment. Morton said the clinic did see a slight downtick in work-related injuries since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The goal is getting people back to work as quickly and safely as possible,” said Morton, adding that the clinic can also provide workplace education courses on such topics as body mechanics, work station setup and blood-borne pathogens.

Colorado law requires employers to carry worker’s compensation insurance when they have one or more employees, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. That applies to all employees who are paid, either full or part time, or family members.

Communications Strategist Lindsey Reznicek at Yampa Valley Medical Center explained that occupational medicine takes a preventive approach in an attempt to avoid potential work-related hazards, while occupational therapy seeks to improve workers’ abilities to do everyday job tasks.

UCHealth relocated the occupational medicine specialty clinic to the Urgent Care facility in May, resulting is an enhanced continuity of care for patients, Morton said. In addition to rehabilitation services and work-related injury management, the therapist also can travel to job sites to evaluate ergonomic issues or other on-site problems leading to injuries.

The clinic staff includes Stacy Toye, certified physician assistant, and Melissa McKibben, nurse practitioner. Dr. Christian Updike, who is board certified in occupational medicine, serves as the medical director for the clinic, traveling to Steamboat monthly to see patients.

At age 63, with decades on the job as a ski instructor, Lambek considers herself lucky with work-related injuries. Only a broken thumb and whiplash in her neck in the past have caused problems for her over all those years. The Colorado native, who has been skiing since age 2, is taking the occupational medicine team’s advice seriously and has cut back to teaching about two days per week.

“The doctor said if I keep doing this, I’m not going be able to participate in all the activities I like to do, hiking, mountain and road biking, e-biking and whitewater kayaking,” Lambek said.

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