A hand mangled by machinery and lungs damaged by inhaling toxic fumes are the types of injuries people usually associate with a claim for workers’ compensation benefits. Psychological injury, perhaps associated with work-related stress, might not be the first thing that comes to mind.
Because workers’ compensation laws differ from one state to another, your ability to claim psychological injuries and collect workers’ comp might depend upon where you live.
Let’s take Oregon, our state of practice, as an example.
Oregon workers’ compensation and psychological injuries
Oregon workers suffering an injury or illness related to their jobs may file a claim for workers’ compensation benefits. It’s a no-fault system, so unless an injury is intentionally self-inflicted, how the injury occurred is irrelevant to the worker’s right to file for benefits.
The state workers’ compensation law permits workers to file benefit claims for work-related illnesses. Any disease or infection related to an individual’s employment activities or to substances to which a worker is exposed as part of the job is defined as an occupational disease in Oregon.
Section 656.802 Oregon Revised Statutes includes the following in its definition of occupational disease:
- Diseases or infections resulting from the ingestion or absorption of fumes, dust, vapors, and other substances.
- Diseases or infections caused by coming into contact with dust, fumes, and other substances.
- A series of traumatic occurrences requiring medical treatment or that causes disability or death.
- Mental disorders requiring medical treatment or causing physical or mental disability or death.
State law in Oregon goes on to identify a mental disorder as including physical disorders that are stress-related. Physical disorders worsened by stress are also included in the law’s definition of a mental disorder. Other states, however, have not taken the same approach in their workers’ compensation laws.
How other states approach work-related psychological injuries
Some states, Kansas being one of them, do not specifically make a psychological injury one for which a worker can receive workers’ compensation benefits. It defines an injury in terms of physical harm or damage to the body. This has not, however, prevented claims for workers’ compensation for psychological injury.
Courts in Kansas have ruled in favor of workers claiming benefits for mental disorders or other psychological trauma. If the psychological disorder is proven to have developed naturally as a consequence of a work-related physical injury, workers’ compensation benefits have been allowed.
A case in New Jersey illustrates the difficulties confronting workers seeking to prove they suffer from work-related psychological injuries. The claim for workers’ compensation benefits filed by a woman attributing her anxiety and disabling psychiatric disorders to an episode in which a supervisor screamed at her was denied based upon a lack of evidence linking the disorders to “objectively stressful” conditions at her place of work.
An appeal by the New Jersey worker upheld the workers’ compensation denial. The appellate court agreed that the evidence did not prove conditions under which the claimant worked were objectively stressful, as opposed to the normal stress people experience in the work environment.
Proving psychological injuries in Oregon
Even though the law in Oregon includes mental disorders as a recognized injury for workers’ compensation claims, it can be difficult to prove the existence of a psychological injury. ORS §656.802 requires proof of the following in order to establish the existence of an occupational disease based upon a mental disorder:
- The disorder was caused by employment conditions existing in “a real and objective sense.”
- There must be something different or unique about the employment conditions. Essentially, every job can be stressful, but there has to be proof of a situation giving rise to the mental disorder. Examples cited in the statute include being terminated from employment or actions taken by the employer in response to poor worker performance or evaluation.
- Diagnosis of an emotional or mental disorder recognized by medical or mental health professionals.
- Evidence must be clear and convincing that the psychological or emotional disorder is related to the person’s employment.
Fortunately for workers, the state appears to be moving toward acceptance of a trend among health care professionals of recognizing the role stress plays in causing common medical conditions, such as heart disease.
For example, ORS 656.802(4) presumes that the death, disability, or impaired health caused by hypertension is an occupational disease for someone employed as a firefighter for at least five years.
Getting help from a workers’ compensation lawyer
A lawyer experienced in handling claims for workers’ compensation for psychological injury under your state’s law can improve your chances of success. The legal advice and guidance of a lawyer, particularly in knowing how to present evidence to prove the injury, can be invaluable in establishing your right to benefits. If you’d like more legal advice on this topic and live in Central Oregon, please contact us.