Occupational Diseases

1. What is an occupational disease?

The Workers' Compensation Law defines an occupational disease as any ailment that is contracted or aggravated due to the nature of a particular kind of work. Not all work-related illness qualifies as an occupational disease under the Workers' Compensation Law. According to the law, the fact that an ailment or illness is contracted at the place of employment is not, in itself, enough to make it an occupational disease. The test used to determine what is and what is not an occupational disease is whether the nature or conditions of a particular type of work create a risk to employees who perform such work that is not shared by employees generally.

Consider this example. A nurse who contracts tuberculosis from a tubercular patient would be entitled to benefits for an occupational disease because it is an ordinary feature of a nurse's employment to be exposed to persons suffering from such diseases/ However, an office worker who contracted tuberculosis for being exposed to a co-worker would not be considered to have contracted an occupational disease because there is nothing in the nature of office work which would expose all persons doing that type of work to tuberculosis.

The Workers' Compensation Law lists 29 specific illnesses presumed to be occupational diseases if contracted by persons working with certain toxic substances, including silicosis and other dust diseases, dermatitis, anthrax, lead, mercury and radium poisoning. However, any disease or condition which is contracted or aggravated due to the nature of the employment may be covered under the Workers' Compensation Law.

Even if a condition does not qualify as an occupational disease, benefits may still be available under the Workers' Compensation Law if either the cause of the condition or the onset of the resulting disability is sudden enough in nature to qualify as an accident injury.

For example, a worker who suffers temporary hearing loss caused by an explosion or loss of sight due to a chemical splashing the eyes may be entitled to benefits as a result of such accidental injuries.

In another example, a worker whose arthritis flares up due to a sudden water leak or lack of heat at the place of employment may also be entitled to benefits.

2. Is an occupational disease limited to conditions caused by toxic substances?

No. While most people think of occupational diseases as those caused by toxic substances, benefits can be awarded under the Workers' Compensation Law for any illness or disease resulting from a particular feature of the employee's work.

For example, occupational diseases have included arthritis in a worker whose job involved picking up heavy boxes and depositing them on a conveyor belt over her head; a hernia in a worker whose job consisted of lifting and bending; varicose veins in the feet of a gas station attendant whose duties required him to stand almost the entire day; and pneumonia in a butcher who was required to go in and out of a refrigerator, subjecting him to sharp variations in temperature. Hearing loss caused by excessive industrial noise is also an occupational disease covered by workers' compensation.

3. Can I obtain benefits for my occupational disease even if no one I work with has the same condition or I am particularly vulnerable to that illness?

Yes. As long as it is caused by a distinctive feature of the work, even if only one employee develops the health problem, the ailment can be found to be an occupational disease.

For example, if a waiter with diabetes develops varicose veins from standing all day, even though no other waiter develops the same condition, the waiter's varicose veins may be found to be an occupational disease.

4. Do I have to be exposed at work to a toxic substance or hazardous condition for a long period of time to be entitled to compensation?

No. If it can be demonstrated that the disease is caused by a short exposure or even a single incident, the disease will be considered occupational and covered by the Workers' Compensation Law as long as it results from a distinctive feature of your job.

5. I work with paints and solvents containing toxic chemicals on the job. I also work with paints and solvents on my own time out of work. Do I have a claim for benefits from my employer if I contract an illness from working with paints and solvents?

As long as your work exposure contributed to your condition, it is probably covered. Depending upon the particular circumstances of your case, however, the Board may divide responsibility between the work and non-work related causes, which could result in your obtaining lower benefits.