Occupational Diseases in the Workplace
Learn how to prove an occupational disease or illness was caused by your job so you can get the compensation you deserve
What is an occupational disease?
Occupational diseases are defined as health conditions or illnesses that develop as a result of one’s job duties or work environment. When people who work in the same occupational field are exposed to similar health issues more frequently than the general population, their resulting work-related health issues are identified as occupational diseases.
Despite the fact that occupational diseases and illnesses often result in serious health issues that require extensive medical treatment and time off of work, they’re vastly underreported. In fact, it’s estimated that as many as 69% of all occupational diseases and illnesses are never reported to an employer.
What’s the difference between an occupational disease and an occupational injury?
An occupational work injury is typically the result of a one-time accident at the workplace. These work-related injuries often result from vehicle or forklift accidents, malfunctioning machinery, slip-and-fall accidents, etc.
An occupational disease, on the other hand, affects a worker gradually over a period of time. In some cases, several years may pass before an occupational disease fully manifests.
Types of occupational diseases
Your risk of developing certain occupational diseases will vary according to the industry you work in, but some of the most common occupational diseases include those listed below.
Occupational respiratory diseases typically result from long-term exposure to certain substances in the work environment, like asbestos, silica dust, pesticides and toxic chemicals.
Respiratory issues that result from occupational conditions include asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (black lung disease), asbestosis, cancer and more.
Asthma is one of the most prevalent occupational respiratory diseases, often brought on by exposure to chemical irritants in the workplace. Currently, there are over 400 workplace chemicals known to cause asthma.
Occupational hearing loss can occur from continuous exposure to loud noises as well as exposure to certain chemicals that damage the inner ear.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 22 million workers are exposed to hazardous levels of noise on the job each year, and approximately 1 in 4 cases of hearing loss in the U.S. is attributed to work-related factors.
Carpal tunnel syndrome
Carpal tunnel syndrome is a common condition that affects workers in various industries. It occurs when the median nerve, which runs through the wrist, becomes compressed or pinched, leading to symptoms such as numbness, pain and tingling in the hand and fingers.
It typically develops gradually as a result of repetitive movements with tools, keyboards and other instruments. Workers who commonly experience carpal tunnel syndrome include office workers, assembly line workers in factories, construction workers, landscapers, mechanics, healthcare workers and musicians.
The CDC estimates that up to 40% of adults in the U.S. receive medical care for chronic pain. Chronic (long-term) pain can result from occupational accidents as well as occupational diseases.
Workers in certain occupations that involve repetitive movements or prolonged periods of physical exertion are more likely to experience chronic pain. Examples include assembly line work, construction, typing and manual labor jobs. Additionally, some occupational diseases, such as certain types of cancer or respiratory conditions, can also result in chronic pain.In some instances, chronic pain that continues for more than 3 months can lead to additional symptoms, including depression and anxiety. This is a condition known as chronic pain syndrome, which affects about 1 in 4 people who experience long-term issues with pain.
Despite the name, tennis elbow is not exclusive to tennis players. Also known as lateral epicondylitis, it’s a condition characterized by pain and inflammation in the tendons that attach to the outer part of the elbow that often radiates downward into the forearm and wrist as well.
It typically happens when the tendons located in the elbow become overworked by repetitive motions of the arm and wrist. Workers in industries such as painting, carpentry, plumbing, cake decorating, and meat packing are examples of the types of occupations that can lead to the development of this painful chronic condition.
Golfer’s elbow, also known as medial epicondylitis, is a condition that causes pain and inflammation on the inner side of the elbow. Despite its name, it can affect not only golfers but also any workers who engage in repetitive wrist and hand movements.
The condition is typically caused by overuse or repetitive strain on the tendons that connect the forearm muscles to the bony prominence on the inside of the elbow. Repeated clenching of the fingers and use of the wrist at work often lead to the onset of golfer’s elbow.
Common symptoms include pain, tenderness and weakness in the affected arm, which can impact daily activities and work performance.
“Trigger finger” may sound like a condition suffered by a proficient gunslinger back in the Old West, but today, the term refers to an occupational condition brought on by repetitive movement of the fingers. It occurs when the sheath that protects the finger tendon, which is located in the palm of the hand, becomes inflamed from overuse.
Trigger finger can lead to the limited use of one or more fingers and often results in the affected finger(s) becoming stuck in a flexed or bent position. It’s a condition that frequently affects those who regularly use power tools that require squeezing a button or grasping a handle to guide the tool.
Occupational cancers are the result of on-the-job exposures to cancer-causing agents, called carcinogens. Asbestos, dust, diesel engine exhaust, metals, cleaning agents, and industrial and combustion chemicals are some of the most prevalent of these carcinogens.
According to an article published in the National Library of Medicine, occupational cancers cause more than 200,000 deaths annually. The most common types of cancer caused by occupational exposure to carcinogens include leukemia, mesothelioma, lung cancer and bladder cancer.
Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibers over a prolonged period of time. These microscopic fibers can become trapped in the lungs, leading to scarring and inflammation.
Asbestosis is a progressive and irreversible condition that can significantly impact an individual’s quality of life. Additionally, it’s important to note that asbestosis is often associated with a higher risk of developing other serious conditions, including lung cancer and mesothelioma.
This disease primarily affects individuals who have been exposed to asbestos in their occupational settings, such as asbestos miners, construction workers and shipyard workers. Over time, the lung tissue becomes stiff and less elastic, resulting in symptoms such as shortness of breath, persistent coughing, chest tightness and fatigue.
Work-related skin conditions encompass a range of dermatological disorders that can occur due to various occupational factors. These conditions may include irritant contact dermatitis, allergic contact dermatitis, occupational acne, skin burns and occupational skin cancers.
Occupational skin conditions are typically caused by exposure to chemicals, irritants, allergens, excessive moisture, UV radiation and physical trauma in the workplace. Industries such as healthcare, construction, manufacturing, food service and agriculture are particularly prone to work-related skin issues.
Dermatitis, which includes both allergic dermatitis and contact (irritant) dermatitis, is one of the most common work-related skin conditions, making up about 15 to 20% of the total number of occupational diseases in the U.S. each year. This high number is a result of the many workplace agents that cause skin reactions in the form of hives, itching, rashes, blisters, etc.
Arthritis is a debilitating disease that can frequently be traced back to occupational conditions. Repetitive work, such as lifting, squatting, constant stair climbing, etc., are some of the main factors that can lead to the development of arthritis. Standing consistently for extended periods (longer than 2 hours a day) or extensive walking can also lead to the development of arthritis.
Arthritis prevention in the workplace involves implementing proper ergonomics, providing training on safe lifting techniques, promoting regular breaks and stretching exercises, and addressing any potential hazards or exposure to harmful substances.
Tendonitis is a condition characterized by inflammation and irritation of the tendon, which is the tissue that connects muscles to bones. It often results from performing repetitive movements or working in awkward positions for prolonged periods without sufficient resting time. This condition is common among workers in the food service, manufacturing and construction industries.
Occupational musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are conditions that affect the muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments and other soft tissues of the body, primarily caused or aggravated by work-related activities. These disorders are often the result of repetitive motions, prolonged awkward postures, forceful exertions and other job duties that put strain on the musculoskeletal system over time.
Common examples of occupational MSDs include carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, chronic low back pain, neck and shoulder strain and herniated discs. These conditions can cause pain, discomfort, reduced range of motion, weakness and functional limitations, affecting an individual’s ability to perform their job tasks efficiently.
Occupational MSDs occur in various industries and occupations, including those that involve repetitive tasks, heavy lifting, manual labor or prolonged sitting or standing.
What are common risk factors for occupational diseases?
There are several factors that contribute to the various types of occupational diseases, including:
- Exposure to hazardous substances
- Tasks involving repetitive motions or overexertion
- Physical strain and heavy lifting
- Noise and vibration exposure
- Lack of safety measures and personal protective equipment (PPE) in the workplace
How to prove an occupational disease is job-related
If you’re suffering from an occupational disease, you’ll want to know how to prove that it’s job-related so you can start getting workers’ compensation benefits to cover lost wages and medical treatment. To do this, you’ll need to establish the following:
- You have a diagnosed disease or illness; and
- There is a direct correlation between your disease/illness and your specific job duties or work environment.
This means that there need to be some factors present at your job or related to your work duties that result in your specific disease or illness that aren’t prevalent in the general population.
Which South Carolina workers qualify for workers’ compensation benefits?
In South Carolina, most employers with 4 or more employees are required to purchase workers’ compensation insurance to protect workers who suffer a job-related injury or illness. This insurance provides benefits to qualified employees for both one-time accidents and occupational illnesses that develop over time.
To be eligible for benefits, you must be an employee (not an independent contractor). Additionally, the following workers typically don’t qualify for workers’ comp benefits in South Carolina:
- Agricultural employees
- Railroad employees
- Casual employees (who don’t work regular hours)
- Licensed real estate agents who work for a broker
- Federal employees
What benefits are workers entitled to?
Employees who have developed an occupational disease may be entitled to the following workers’ comp benefits:
- Medical benefits, including hospitalization, doctor’s appointments, medical exams, surgeries, medical supplies, medications, assistive equipment and travel costs for medical care
- Lost wage benefits, which are typically two-thirds of your average weekly wage while you’re unable to work during recovery
- Death benefits for surviving family members, including funeral expenses and lost income, if a worker dies from a work-related injury or illness
How to file a workers’ comp claim for an occupational disease
You should take the following steps to file a claim for workers’ compensation benefits in South Carolina:
- Seek medical care. You should see a doctor for treatment and to obtain a diagnosis linking your occupational disease or illness to your job.
- Report the illness to your employer. Workers are required to report any work-related injury, illness or disease to their employer within 90 days of an accident or within 90 days of discovering an illness or disease in order to qualify for benefits.
- Verify your employer files a claim. Your employer is then required to file a claim on your behalf with their insurer and notify the South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Commission. If your employer refuses to file your claim, you can file it yourself by submitting Form 50.
- Contact an attorney. If your employer or their workers’ comp insurer denies your claim, contact an experienced workers’ compensation lawyer as soon as possible to help you file an appeal.
What challenges do workers face when filing a workers’ comp claim for an occupational disease?
The main challenge faced by workers when filing a claim that involves an occupational disease is proving that the condition is work-related. Even if your industry is known for causing the particular illness you develop, employers and workers’ comp insurers often try to deny claims in hopes that the worker will give up on their right to pursue benefits.
Because of this, it’s highly recommended that you consult an experienced workers’ compensation lawyer early on in the process to help you file your claim and ensure that all procedures are followed and evidence is collected to give you the best chance of success.
How can occupational diseases be prevented?
The most effective way to prevent occupational diseases is to identify their causes and eliminate or significantly reduce them. Risk factors in the work environment are usually out of the scope of the employees’ control. However, when a worker becomes aware of a hazardous condition, they should notify their employer so it can be promptly addressed.
In occupations where potentially harmful conditions are part of the job, the employer must provide adequate and effective training and PPE specific to the work conditions. This equipment must be maintained in good condition at all times and be replaced as necessary.
Any job where there is the potential for occupational diseases should have clear, accurate warning signs prominently displayed where workers can see them at all times. This information should also be included in employee handbooks and updated regularly, including information on protective measures.
Additionally, designing workstations, tools and equipment to promote proper ergonomics can reduce the risk of some occupational diseases like musculoskeletal disorders. This may include adjustable chairs, ergonomic keyboards, proper lighting and workstations tailored to individual needs.
Contact a Columbia workers’ compensation attorney
Getting the compensation you deserve after developing an occupational disease or illness can be challenging. That’s why it’s highly recommended that you contact an experienced work injury attorney early on in the process to ensure your rights are protected.
They can help gather evidence to support your claim and obtain expert medical witnesses who can testify to the fact that your illness or disease is related to your job. They can also negotiate with your employer and their insurer on your behalf to ensure you get maximum compensation.
At Smith, Born, Leventis, Taylor & Vega, we believe that every employee is entitled to a safe work environment. When on-the-job accidents or illnesses occur, you shouldn’t have to worry about how you’re going to afford your medical care or pay your bills. That’s why our Columbia workers’ compensation attorneys offer free, no-obligation consultations to give you the help and information you need to get back on the road to recovery.
Contact us today to see how we can help you get maximum compensation for your claim.