Most people associate workers’ compensation with an on-the-job injury, but many job sites also expose workers to hazardous conditions that can cause illness over an extended period of time. The Nomberg Law Firm in Birmingham specializes in workers’ compensation claims, particularly those associated with occupational diseases and illnesses.
What is an occupational disease?
Workers’ compensation benefits are awarded for injuries or illnesses incurred on the job or linked to the workplace. While an injury often occurs after a one-time accident, an occupational disease is an illness that results from prolonged exposure to conditions in a work environment.
Because they’re not usually associated with one specific event, occupational illnesses are not always easy to link to an employee’s place of work. However, there are some illnesses and diseases that are more common in specific occupations.
What are the most common occupational diseases?
Occupational illnesses or diseases typically result from repetitive, excessive trauma to the body or long-term exposure to hazardous materials. Below are some of the most common occupational diseases and their associated industries.
A wide variety of chemicals are used in agricultural and industrial workplaces. Prolonged exposure to them can cause many symptoms, including:
- Throat pain
- Breathing difficulty
- Burns on skin or lips
- Excessive sleepiness or irritability
- Stomach cramps
- Breath odor or drooling
Mesothelioma is a common occupational cancer frequently associated with asbestos exposure that affects the thin membrane lining the abdomen. Workplaces commonly associated with mesothelioma are building demolition sites, power stations, and plumbing projects.
Symptoms of mesothelioma include:
- Lost appetite
- Shortness of breath
- Lung crackling
- Foot and toe clubbing
- Chest pain and tightness
In addition to asbestos, benzene and secondhand smoke are other carcinogens found in many workplaces that have been associated with lung cancer, bladder cancer and leukemia.
Contact dermatitis is a skin disorder that can occur when an employee’s skin makes contact with industrial chemicals such as solvents, degreasing agents and cutting oils.
It’s the most common occupational skin disease, and it accounts for up to 20 percent of all reported occupational diseases in the U.S. annually. Additionally, as many as 75 percent of people with contact dermatitis go on to develop a chronic skin disease.
Each year, more than 20 million U.S. workers are exposed to airborne toxins that cause respiratory diseases, with asthma being the most frequently reported occupational respiratory disease. According to the CDC, nearly 30 percent of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and adult asthma are caused by occupational exposure.
Jobs with the highest rates of respiratory diseases include painters, salon workers, construction workers, firefighters, auto mechanics and welders.
Silicosis is a form of pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease caused by long-term exposure to silica dust. It leads to inflammation and scarring of the upper lobes of the lungs.
Silica dust is most prevalent at construction sites, mines, foundries, and stone and glass cutting centers.
According to the CDC, hearing loss is the most common occupational disease. Each year, more than 30 million workers are regularly exposed to hazardous noise that can result in hearing loss and lead to issues like:
- Chronic tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
- Difficulty communicating
- Increased work accidents
- Lost productivity
- Social isolation
Workers who work in noisy places like factories and construction sites are especially vulnerable.
Infectious diseases are commonly spread in the workplace from human-to-human contact and can be bloodborne or airborne.
Health care workers are most at risk because of their routine exposure to infected patients. They must therefore be ever vigilant about exercising preventative protocols to prevent contracting and spreading infection in the workplace. Common infectious diseases threatening health care workers include:
- Hepatitis B and C
Social workers, prison personnel, and laboratory workers are also particularly at risk.
What does it take to prove a disease was caused by an occupation?
According to Alabama Code Sec 25-5-110, to claim workers’ compensation benefits for an occupational disease in Alabama, workers must prove that their illness was caused or aggravated by their job duties.
However, they do not have to show that their employer was at fault or responsible for the worksite condition.
Some diseases, such as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP), commonly known as “black lung disease,” are clearly linked to a particular workplace. However, for other serious illnesses, the worker must:
- Identify the hazardous condition they were exposed to
- Show that their exposure occurred over a period of time
- Show that the hazard exceeded similar hazards that ordinary workers are exposed to
- Show that their exposure was extensive enough to prove that hazard caused or aggravated their disease or illness
If you’re injured on the job, you want to make sure you get a fair settlement. Learn how your average weekly wage is calculated so you know how much your workers’ comp claim should be worth.
What does Alabama workers’ compensation cover?
All Alabama employers with at least 5 employees are required to provide workers’ compensation benefits to their employees. They usually do so by purchasing insurance.
Disability benefits are paid to cover lost wages during the term of the disability:
- Temporary total disability (TTD) benefits are paid weekly when you’re unable to perform any work temporarily. They are usually two-thirds of your average weekly wages.
- Temporary partial disability (TPD) benefits are paid when workers are able to do some work but not as much as usual for the term of the disability. The benefits are typically two-thirds of the difference between what you can earn and your average weekly wages before your illness.
- Permanent total disability (PTD) benefits are paid when you are permanently unable to do work of any kind. They are usually two-thirds of the average weekly wages you were receiving at the time you became disabled.
- Permanent partial disability (PPD) benefits are set according to a percentage of disability established by statute.
Alabama workers’ comp pays for reasonable and necessary medical treatment during your recovery from an occupational disease, but you do have to use a doctor or health provider approved by your employer.
Medical expenses covered by workers’ comp include:
- Doctor appointments
- Artificial members
- Medical supplies
When an employee dies as a result of an occupational disease, workers’ comp will pay death benefits to their surviving family members or dependents.
Some insurance companies require you to undergo an independent medical exam (IME) if they dispute your doctor’s health assessment. Find out how an IME could affect your workers’ comp case.
How long do Alabama workers have to file a claim for an occupational illness?
For workplace injuries, the worker must give notice of their injury within 90 days. However, an occupational disease is not easily identified by the date of its onset.
Why are workers’ comp claims typically denied?
There are many grounds on which an employer will try to deny a workers’ comp claim for injuries or occupational disease. The following are reasons commonly used to deny a claim for an occupational disease:
- The employee failed to promptly seek medical care.
- The employee failed to report the illness promptly at the onset of the disease.
- There is evidence of pre-existing disease symptoms.
- The employee failed to prove the disease or illness was caused by the work environment.
Employers, especially their insurance companies, don’t typically like to pay claims. Too many claims make the insurance company lose money and result in higher premiums for the employer.
A common defense is to hold that the injury or illness was not caused by workplace conditions. This is particularly true of occupational diseases, many of which can have origins outside the workplace as well as inside the workplace.
Some states have addressed this “tracing problem” by enacting a rebuttable presumption for certain workers. For example, a healthcare worker, miner or other vulnerable worker who contracts a disease is presumed to have been exposed at their workplace, but the employer can attempt to rebut the presumption.
However, Alabama has not enacted such a presumption.
How a workers’ comp lawyer can help get maximum compensation for a work illness
Filing a workers’ comp claim is a challenge for any injury, illness or disease. But claims for occupational disease disability are particularly challenging. The disease (either contraction of a new case or aggravation of a pre-existing condition) must be traced to the claimant’s workplace.
States define qualifying diseases restrictively to minimize fraudulent claims. A claimant should engage an experienced workers’ compensation lawyer early if they believe they’ve contracted a disease that resulted from their work environment.
A good lawyer must be skilled in the law of personal injury and workers’ compensation. In addition, they must have a working knowledge of human anatomy and diseases. Finally, they must have close relationships with medical and other technical expert witnesses.
At Nomberg Law Firm in Birmingham, our experienced workers’ comp and personal injury attorneys have been fighting large corporations and insurance companies for more than 50 years to ensure injured Alabamians get the compensation they deserve. Contact us today for a free consultation of your case.