Occupational Disease Coverage under Workers' Compensation Statutes

Occupational diseases are generally defined as ailments that are contracted or aggravated due to the nature of a particular kind of work. State workers' compensation statutes usually allow workers to receive benefits for occupational diseases. In order to obtain benefits, an employee must generally prove, as with all workers' compensation claims, that the injury arose out of and in the course of the employment. Some workers' compensation statutes categorize occupational diseases separately from other injuries. Others do not. Like all workers' compensation statutory provisions, those dealing with occupational diseases are to be interpreted liberally in favor of an employee.

Proving an Occupational Disease

In order to receive compensation for an occupational disease, an employee must usually prove:

  1. That the disease was caused by conditions characteristic of and peculiar to a particular occupation or employment, and
  2. That the disease was not an ordinary disease of life to which the general public was equally exposed.

A disease is generally "characteristic" of an occupation when there is a recognizable link between the nature of the job and an increased risk of contracting the disease. To be "peculiar to" an occupation, courts have ruled that the disease must be a natural incident of the occupation. The disease must also attach to the occupation a hazard that is greater than that attached to employment in general. The disease need not be one that can only be acquired through an occupation in order to be considered an occupational disease.

Occupational Diseases

Examples of diseases found to be "occupational" under facts of particular cases include:

  • Contact dermatitis acquired by a dishwasher,
  • Tuberculosis acquired by a nurse, and
  • Hepatitis acquired by a lab technician,

Diseases that are Not Occupational

Examples of diseases NOT found to be "occupational" under facts of particular cases include:

  • thrombophlebitis (blood clot disorder) acquired by a practical nurse (no evidence that nursing job increased the risk of acquiring the common disorder),
  • skin and bronchial problems acquired by laundry worker (worker did not prove that exposure to bleach caused the disorders).

Distinction between Ordinary Diseases of Life and Occupational Diseases

Although workers' compensation law draws a distinction between ordinary diseases of life and occupational diseases, the distinction between those categories is often difficult. In most states an ordinary disease of life may be an occupational disease where that disease was caused by a particular employee's occupation.

Example: Although lung cancer is an ordinary disease of life, widow of worker who died from lung cancer obtained benefits after proving that worker acquired disease from inhaling asbestos on the job.

Unlike most injuries compensated by workers' compensation statutes, those attributed to occupational diseases may develop gradually, over a period of time. There is no requirement that the disease occur suddenly.

Aggravations of Pre-Existing Injuries

Under most workers compensation statutes, aggravations of preexisting injuries, where those aggravations are caused by an occupational disease, are compensable. Employees or dependents are required to prove the aggravations in the same manner in which they are required to prove standard occupational disease injuries.

Copyright 2012 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.

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