You probably know that Workers’ Comp laws provide benefits (partial wage replacement and medical care) to employees who are accidentally injured on the job. Did you know that Workers’ Comp also covers employees who are disabled because of occupational disease?
An employee must prove two things in order to qualify for benefits based on an occupational disease:
- That the disease came from the work duties, and
- That the type of work makes the employee more likely to get that disease than the general public.
The doctor’s opinion will likely carry the day on the first of those two. For example, if the doctor believes a worker’s carpal tunnel syndrome came from his computer data entry job, rather than some other cause (like a traumatic injury), the first test is proved. Another example is if the doctor says a hospital nurse’s contracting hepatitis B or MRSA came from exposure at her work, rather than from some other exposure.
The second test requires that the job duties make the worker more likely to get this disease than the general public. To meet this test, look to the doctor’s opinion and to scientific research. The doctor may be able to say that, over many years in practice, he has treated more computer data entry workers for carpal tunnel syndrome than the general public, so he believes the repetitive hand positions in this job predispose workers to the disease. There are also ergonomic studies about the link between certain jobs and particular health problems. For example, there are studies showing that dental hygienists are more likely to have neck pain than the general population. There are many studies linking full-time data entry to carpal tunnel syndrome.
Statistics can also help prove these cases. In the example above where a hospital nurse contracts hepatitis B or MRSA, statistics show that there are certain places where contracting these diseases is more likely. Hospitals are high on the list. While the general public may go to hospitals occasionally as a patient or visitor, hospital workers are there every day, increasing their risk.
What are some other conditions that may be occupational diseases? It is impossible to give a complete list, but here are a few common ones. Dental hygienists often have neck problems because of the position they have to hold while working on patients. Employees who do a lot of overhead work, like auto mechanics who work on vehicles that are on lifts, and some warehouse workers, are more likely to have difficulty with their shoulders. Carpet installers are prone to knee disorders (even with pads). Some assembly line jobs require repetitive motion that stresses particular joints.
For occupational diseases, Workers’ Comp law provides weekly compensation (2/3 of average weekly wage) while the employee must be out of work. Once the employee returns to work, permanent partial disability compensation can be calculated in various ways. If a worker is permanently disabled from the condition, lifetime weekly checks are available. Workers’ Comp also covers the employee’s medical care for the condition. Because proving an occupational disease can be technical, an employee or employer involved in an occupational disease case may want to consult the N.C. Industrial Commission’s website (www.ic.nc.gov) and/or consult an attorney for assistance. In my practice, I find that Workers’ Comp insurance companies are more likely to deny valid occupational disease claims than injury-by-accident claims. Because occupational disease cases are more complex to prove, insurance companies hope that the claimant will give up if they deny the claim initially. Do not be discouraged, as persistence will often be rewarded.
Kim K. Steffan is an attorney with Steffan & Associates, P.C. in Hillsborough, NC. She can be reached at 919-732-7300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was last updated in January 2020.