You probably have enough familiarity with state workers’ compensation laws to know that workers are entitled to receive medical treatment for injuries suffered in work-related accidents without having to file lawsuits against their employers. But what about the nagging cough you have that keeps getting worse or the trouble you have hearing other people speaking to you? Either one of these conditions could entitle you to workers’ compensation benefits as occupational diseases.
How states define occupational diseases
Workers’ compensation laws differ from state to state, so there may be differences from one state to another in the way occupational disease claims are processed and compensated, but there is little variance in the definition of occupational disease. Oregon, for instance, defines occupational disease as one that arises from or in the course of employment is caused by exposure to substances or engaging in activities to which workers would not be subjected in the normal course of employment. The law requires that the illness or condition necessitates medical care or results in death or disability.
Types of occupational diseases and their causes
The Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor categorizes the various types of occupational illnesses as follows:
- Loss of hearing: Hearing loss induced by noise in the workplace that totals 25 decibels or more as compared to a baseline audiogram, attributable to exposure to noise in the work environment.
- Skin diseases: Exposure to chemicals, plants, or substances in the workplace that cause eczema, contact dermatitis, rash, friction blisters, or inflammation of the skin.
- Poisoning: Abnormal levels of toxic substances in a person’s blood, bodily fluids, breath, or tissues caused by ingestion or absorption through the skin in the work environment. Examples of substances that could cause poisoning in this manner include lead, cadmium, mercury, benzene, insecticides, formaldehyde, and similar solvents or chemicals.
- Respiratory diseases and conditions: Inhalation of chemicals, dust, vapors, gases, and fumes in a work environment can result in serious respiratory conditions that could cause illness, disability, or death. Asbestos is a substance commonly used in a number of industrial and commercial applications that can be prove to be deadly if inhaled.
There are many illnesses or conditions a worker might experience that are not related to exposure to substances. Other occupational diseases or illnesses include:
- Heat exhaustion
- Exposure to lasers
Certain types of occupations, such as that of physicians, nurses, and laboratory workers, could involve contact with viruses, bacteria, and germs that can cause illnesses and diseases such as AIDS, HIV, and hepatitis. Even if you sit at a desk all day in the relative safety of an office, you might still be subjected to conditions that could lead to an occupational disease, such as carpal tunnel syndrome.
There are any number of factors that can cause or contribute to the development of carpal tunnel syndrome, but repetitive use, such as when typing, or the use of power tools that cause excessive vibration in the hand and lower arm are common causes in the workplace. Carpal tunnel syndrome can cause numbness, weakness, and debilitating pain in the hand and wrist.
Workers’ compensation and proving occupational diseases
A worker who is injured in a work-related accident or is diagnosed with an occupational disease or illness caused by conditions or activities in the workplace might be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. Workers’ compensation insurance allows injured workers to receive the medical treatment, including physical and occupational therapy, that they require to recover from their injuries and return to work. Individuals who are unable to work because of an illness or injury are compensated for the loss of income. Workers’ compensation also provides death benefits to the families of individuals whose deaths are caused by injuries or illnesses that are work-related.
Injuries caused by an accident or mishap at work are generally easy to identify and prove. When a worker is hit by a vehicle or is injured while operating machinery, there is rarely any doubt about how the accident and the injury occurred. Occupational diseases may not be as easy to prove.
Occupational diseases can be slow to develop. A person exposed to toxic substances might take months or even years to develop symptoms requiring medical attention. Some states, such as Oregon, place the burden on the injured party to prove that the occupational disease is caused by something that occurred at work. This can be difficult to do if symptoms are slow to develop.
Attempting to prove that an occupational disease is caused by conditions existing at a job as opposed to other reasons can be a daunting task. A claimant will probably need a report from the doctor who diagnosed the illness. The report would have to clearly demonstrate that the medical condition is attributable to the environment, activities, or substance exposure that existed at the individual’s workplace.
Another problem that can arise with workers’ compensation claims for occupational diseases is the statute of limitations imposed by states. A statute of limitations requires the filing of a claim within a specific period of time before the right to do so is lost forever. For example, the time to file a claim in Oregon could be as short as one year from the date of discovery of the occupational disease.
Get the legal advice you need
Unlike some injuries for which entitlement to workers’ compensation benefits are clear, occupational diseases can be difficult to prove and your right to benefits lost if you don’t file on time. If you believe you’re suffering from a medical condition related to current or past work, the advice of an attorney with experience handling occupational disease claims could be an excellent source of guidance.