What is an Occupational Disease?

What is an Occupational Disease?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, occupational injuries accounted for the vast majority (96%) of all occupational injury and illness cases reported by private employers in Ohio in 2017 (the most recent year for which data is available). Only 4% of cases involved so-called “occupational disease,” which may explain why there is often some confusion about just what that term means. In this blog post, we discuss the legal and practical issues surrounding the relatively rare workers’ compensation claim for “occupational disease.”

“Occupational Disease” Defined

Under Ohio law, a disability resulting from an “occupational disease” is covered under workers’ comp. The law defines “occupational disease” as:

a disease contracted in the course of employment, which by its causes and the characteristics of its manifestation or the condition of the employment results in a hazard which distinguishes the employment in character from employment generally, and the employment creates a risk of contracting the disease in greater degree and in a different manner from the public in general.

Perhaps in recognition of how vague and open-ended this definition appears, the legislature also set forth a “schedule of compensable occupational diseases,” which is a list of some of the conditions that may qualify as occupational diseases. Though not exclusive, the list is rather comprehensive and includes:

  • Anthrax;
  • Cardiovascular, pulmonary, and respiratory diseases;
  • Various cancers;
  • Radiation illness;
  • Poisoning (e.g., lead, arsenic, etc.); and
  • Certain cases of silicosis or asbestosis.

To be covered under workers’ comp, all of the diseases above, and any other disease must arise in some fashion as a result of the afflicted employee’s employment, such that the workplace conditions or requirements put the employee at greater risk of the disease than a member of the general public.

Practical Difficulties of Occupational Diseases

As the definition and schedule above suggest, proving a case of occupational disease can be a complicated affair. Oftentimes, the source of illness is very tricky to pin down. Doing so may require significant research by medical and public health experts. The investment of time and money into collecting the necessary evidence often exceeds the resources of many law firms and clients. This inherent difficulty in proving an occupational disease may explain why the category comprises such a small percentage of Ohio’s annual reported cases.

When an employee succeeds in proving an occupational disease, however, the consequences can pose a significant threat to the employer and strain the workers’ comp system. Many of the occupational diseases listed on the “schedule” described above are illnesses arising from exposure to toxic materials or working conditions. It is rare that the exposure in those cases is limited to a single employee. More often, multiple employees will have sustained the same exposure, putting a portion of employer’s workforce at risk and imposing potentially heavy financial burdens in the form of rising workers’ compensation premiums and negative publicity.

Choose the Right Attorney for an Occupational Disease Claim

An Ohio employer or employee facing a potential occupational disease claim needs sophisticated, resourceful legal advice. Obtaining compensation for, and mitigating the widespread risks of, an occupational disease, require the guidance of attorneys who understand public health and medical diagnoses, as well as how to navigate the Ohio workers’ compensation claims process.

At Dworken and Bernstein, we are proud to have represented workers and businesses throughout Ohio in a wide range of workers’ comp matters. When the rare, but significant, case of an occupational disease arises, our firm has the resources and expertise our clients need to navigate the complex legal and evidentiary challenges.

If you have legal questions about a suspected occupational disease, contact us today.

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