Occupational Disease & Workers’ Comp in Pennsylvania

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If you fall down at work and break a bone, you would (hopefully) know that you should file for workers’ compensation. You would then report the injury right away, get medical care, and hold onto those medical records so you can file for workers’ comp benefits—before you miss crucial deadlines.

But what if you’ve been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), have suffered hearing loss, or you’re getting treated for any other disorder that has been linked to a past or current job? Can you still file for workers’ compensation, even if it's been years since you worked at that hazardous job? Would the deadlines be the same? Even if it’s been years between your diagnosis and when you were exposed to certain chemicals or dangerous noise levels, you might still be able to file for workers’ comp because of a work-related illness or disorder.

From qualifying conditions to different deadlines, here's what you need to know about occupational disease and filing for workers’ compensation in Pennsylvania.

What Is an Occupational Disease?

Cumulative injuries are considered occupational diseases under the law, injuries like carpal tunnel and back strain that aren’t the immediate results of an accident, but are induced by repetitive movements. Of course, certain illnesses and diseases occur at consistently higher rates in certain industries, enough to be considered job-related. Some relationships between certain jobs and occupational diseases are well established now, such as the clear link between mesothelioma developing in workers who have been exposed to asbestos.

Most occupational disease cases can be far trickier to prove, however.

That said, occupational diseases are most often known to be linked to:

  • Working with animals (especially exposure to parasites and insects)
  • Bacterial exposure from other humans
  • Exposure to plants and fungi
  • Chemical exposure, from benzene and lead to dust, fumes, and so forth
  • Poor lighting
  • Noise exposure
  • Extreme temperatures
  • Radiation
  • Repetitive movements
  • Workplace violence & harassment

For such exposures to be blamed for a worker’s disorder or disease, the intensity and duration of the exposure is a key point, as is the potency of exposure, and the point of contact, such as whether it was touched, ingested, or inhaled, etc.

Some specific occupational illnesses and diseases can include:

  • Skin disorders (eczema, rashes, chrome ulcers, etc.)
  • Respiratory conditions (asthma, COPD, farmer’s lung, silicosis, etc.)
  • Poisoning (by arsenic, hydrogen sulfide, benzene, insecticide, or other metals, gases, solvents, and chemicals)
  • Hearing loss (the most common occupational illness according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
  • Bloodborne contagious diseases (HIV, hepatitis B or C, etc.)
  • Cancer
  • Fertility issues & birth defects (due to chemical exposures)

Other conditions that are fast developing, such as heatstroke, frostbite, and decompression sickness due to workplace environments could also be counted as occupational illnesses.

What Doesn’t Count as an Occupational Disease

According to OSHA, a disease or disorder would not be considered a reportable, occupational illness if:

  • An employee suffered the illness during exposure to the environment while off the clock
  • The illness exhibits symptoms in the workplace, but the source of the illness comes from something outside of work
  • It came from food the employee prepared themselves and ate at the workplace (unless the food was contaminated by workplace toxins, such as lead)
  • It’s the flu or common cold
  • It’s mental illness, unless licensed psychiatrist or other specialist can specify that the mental illness is due to someone’s line of work

Specific Worksites & Occupational Diseases

Even with all these guidelines in place, occupational disease claims are often disputed, complicated affairs. In part, this is because some disorders and illnesses may not fully develop until years down the road. In other cases, certain diseases have many other possible causes outside of a given workplace.

That said, there are some well-established correlations between different industries and diseases that consistently and often develop among workers in said industries. Of course, the following list of occupations and occupation-specific health risks is far from exhaustive.

Below is a small sample of certain occupations and the disorders and diseases associated with them:

  • Agriculture – cancers from pesticide exposure, hearing loss from noise exposure
  • Animal handling – asthma from exposure to furs, feathers, and more
  • Computer work – carpal tunnel from repetitive wrist and hand motions
  • Construction – cancers from chemical exposures; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) from dust and fume exposure; hearing loss due to noise exposure,
  • Underground construction (tunneling) – Ischemic heart disease due to exposure to carbon monoxide, inhaled dusts
  • EMTs, Health care – Infections, from hepatitis B and C to coronavirus and more due to contagious patients, needlestick injuries, etc.; upper extremity disorders and back strain/injuries from repetitive movements and lifting in awkward positions
  • Firefighting – Cardiovascular disease, lung disease, and cancer due to exposure to carbon monoxide, benzene, asbestos, and more; infectious diseases from medical emergencies, needlestick injuries, etc.; hearing loss from loud noises.
  • Landscaping – Upper extremity disorders from working repetitively with hands above shoulder level
  • Manufacturing – Asthma from exposure to welding fumes, metals, and more; cancer from chemical exposures; COPD from dust and fume exposure; hearing loss produced by noise exposure
  • Mining – Black lung; cancer from chemical, dust, and fume exposure; COPD; hearing loss
  • Nuclear facility workers – Ischemic heart disease from radiation, chemical exposures, etc.
  • Transportation workers – Hearing loss from exposure to noise; ischemic heart disease from job stress, diesel exposure, exposure to hazardous material cargo, etc.

In some cases, the link between some jobs and certain disease risks may be common enough that there could be compensation sources available to affected workers, such as the Federal Black Lung Program being available for coal miners.

Establishing That a Disease Is Occupation-Related

When does workplace exposure to dangerous elements count as causing a reportable occupational disease?

According to OSHA, it can be considered an occupational disease if it causes:

  • Death
  • Losing consciousness
  • Taking time off work to recover
  • Disability/restricted ability to work
  • A need for medical treatment other than basic first aid

In some cases, a disease can still be considered an occupational illness if the nature or environment of your work aggravated a pre-existing condition to the point of needing new medication, losing consciousness, or death, for example.

Physicians should be asking patients about the nature of their work and the types of exposures they’ve faced as a result, such as radiation, chemicals, and loud noises. Medical providers, especially occupational medicine specialists, can be key in establishing the link between a diagnosis and a patient’s line of work.

Filing for Workers’ Comp for Occupational Disease in Pennsylvania

Even if you’re not certain if an illness or disorder is related to your job, it’s best to report the condition right away. It may be possible that a medical provider can establish a connection between the condition and your work. If so, you could be eligible for workers’ comp benefits for wage replacement, medical treatment, vocational rehabilitation, and more.

Is There a Deadline to File for an Occupational Disease Workers’ Comp Claim?

With work injury cases in Pennsylvania, workers have 120 days to report the injury, though it’s best to report it within 21 days. You would then have three years to follow up by filing a workers’ compensation claim.

In the case of progressive conditions, however, like hearing loss and other delayed occupational diseases, you might have as much as six years from the last workplace exposure within which to file for workers’ comp benefits.

Talk to One of Our PA Occupational Disease Lawyers

It all depends on the details of your case. That’s why it’s critical to speak to a Pennsylvania workers’ compensation attorney as soon as possible. At Handler, Henning & Rosenberg LLC, we’ve been helping our clients win cases since 1922. We can help you determine whether what you have is an occupational disease, as well as help you determine what your legal options are and how best to proceed so that you can get the compensation you need.

Call (888) 498-3023 or contact us online today to request your free workers’ comp consultation.

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