Industrial Disease Defenses

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 What Are Industrial Diseases?

Industrial diseases are medical conditions that afflict people because they have worked in a particular field or industry. They are work-related illnesses and conditions. They are common for certain lines of work, especially industries such as construction, meat processing and meat packing, and mining. Professional athletes often suffer injuries related to the physical demands of playing various sports, e.g., football and ice hockey.

However, industrial diseases can occur in any line of work, and each industry has medical conditions associated more closely with that industry than with others.

To recover damages for industrial disease, the worker must prove that their employer employed them at the time of injury and that their injury was directly related to the tasks they have to perform for their job.

What Are Some Examples of Industrial Disease?

Some common examples of industrial disease include the following:

  • Repetitive Stress Injuries: Repetitive stress injuries result from repeatedly making the same motions or movements for months or even years. If the motion or movement is made in the course of performing a job, the injury may qualify as an industrial or occupational disease;
  • Musculoskeletal Disorders: These are disorders such as joint pain and injury, muscle strains and sprains, and even bone fractures, e.g., fractured vertebra in the spine;
  • Toxic Exposure: Exposure to toxic substances, e.g., molds, without adequate protection, can lead to injuries and illnesses;
  • Lung Damage: Specifically, several lung disorders, including silicosis or asbestosis, are caused by exposure to asbestos and crystalline silica dust. The inhalation of crystalline silica dust causes inflammation and scarring of the lungs.
    • Asbestosis is a chronic disease of the lungs that is caused by inhaling asbestos fibers. Asbestos exposure can also lead to lung cancer. The main symptom, shortness of breath, often only appears after many years of exposure. Ultimately, the victim’s breathing can become painful and cause death from lung or heart failure;
  • Black-lung Disease, or Coal-workers’ Pneumoconiosis: This is a respiratory disease caused by repeated inhalation of coal dust over several years. It is a disease that afflicts coal miners. The disease gets its name because one of its main symptoms is a distinctive blue-black marbling of the lungs caused by the accumulation of coal dust in the lungs;
  • Heavy Lifting Injuries: Acute strains can be caused by one event, such as using poor body mechanics to lift something heavy. Chronic muscle strains can result from repetitive injuries when a person stresses a muscle by making the same motion repeatedly.
  • Electric Shock Injury: Electrocution is death by electric shock. Construction workers, electricians, and engineers are especially at risk of electric shock injuries on the job;
  • Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS): Vibration white finger, now referred to as “hand-arm vibration syndrome,” is an occupational injury caused by the frequent use of hand-held machinery that vibrates continuously. The symptoms of HAVS are permanent numbness of fingers, muscle weakness, aches, pains, weakened grip, and sometimes episodes of white finger;
  • Deafness: Hearing loss is an industrial injury that is caused by many occupations. There can be a one-time exposure to an especially loud sound. In this case, the harm can be immediate. This type of hearing loss occurs when a worker is exposed to extremely loud noises for a short time, e.g., shooting a firearm. The sound of one gunshot or explosion can do permanent damage to a person’s hearing.
    • Hearing loss can also result from repeated exposure to loud sounds. The degree of loss can harm a person’s quality of life.

Again, the main characteristic of industrial disease is that it is very specific to a certain line of work. For instance, vibration white finger is very common in construction jobs due to power tools, whereas a worker in an office setting will not be afflicted with this condition.

What Are the Remedies for Industrial Diseases?

As a first step, when certain serious injuries occur in workplaces, the law requires employers to report the incidents to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Workplace deaths must be reported within 8 hours. Amputations and inpatient hospitalizations must be reported within 24 hours.

An employer can be fined at least $750 for failure to make these required reports. Reporting these events can lead to OSHA inspections and fines if the injury results from violations of OSHA regulations.

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) may require a period of leave for a worker who has been injured on the job. Employers are advised to make sure that an injured worker gets the appropriate amount of leave under the FMLA. An employer and an injured worker should understand health care providers’ recommendations regarding time off and ensure that the employee takes time off work that health care providers recommend. If the FMLA does not apply, an employee might take other forms of leave, such as sick or paid time off.

It is important to remember that the FMLA applies to public agencies, elementary and secondary schools, and businesses with 50 or more employees. These employers must provide an eligible employee with up to 12 weeks of unpaid medical leave when the employee cannot work because of a serious health condition.

If an injured employee remains disabled after recovering from an injury, their job does not necessarily end. Doctors may prescribe job restrictions to people with workplace injuries. Also, if a physical impairment substantially limits a major life activity, the employee would probably be disabled under the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA).

If this is the case, an employer must provide the worker with reasonable accommodations, e.g., an ergonomic workstation, extra breaks, a work stool for sitting rather than standing, or perhaps, in some states, even extended leave.

An employer may have to offer accommodations, such as additional time off or a transfer after the employee returns to work at the end of their FMLA or other leave. An employer should consider all options before deciding to terminate a person’s employment because of their inability to return to work.

An employer’s failure to consider all options for a disabled employee who wants to return to work could result in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charges, ADAAA lawsuits, and, in many states, suits by employees alleging retaliation for seeking workers’ compensation benefits.

Generally, a worker injured in the course and scope of their employment seeks compensation for their losses under the workers’ compensation system of the state where they work. Workers’ compensation systems generally provide compensation for the lost wages or salary and medical expenses of a worker who has suffered a workplace injury or an industrial disease. Occasionally, a worker may have grounds for a lawsuit for negligence or strict product liability. This would depend on the exact facts of the case. This is something that an experienced personal injury lawyer could sort out.

What Are Some Common Defenses to Industrial Disease Lawsuits?

Remedies for industrial disease often involve awarding money damages for losses caused by the injury. This often reimburses workers suffering from an industrial disease for their lost wages, medical expenses, and other costs. As noted above, in most industrial disease cases, these damages are covered through workers’ compensation or a lawsuit for negligence or strict product liability.

Some defenses to industrial disease claims include the following:

  • Not Work-related: The employer might be able to show that the worker sustained the injury outside of their employment and it was not work-related;
  • Fraud: The employer might be able to show that the victim has essentially faked their symptoms or is falsely exaggerating the extent of their injuries;
  • Pre-existing Condition: The employer might be able to show that the worker’s injury was related to a pre-existing condition;
  • Expired Statute of Limitations: The victim may have waited too long to file a claim, and the statute of limitations has expired.

Are All Workers Covered by Workers’ Compensation?

It is also important to recognize that not all workers are covered by state workers’ compensation systems. The following classes of workers are usually not covered:

  • Business owners;
  • Independent contractors;
  • Federal employees;
  • Domestic employees who work in private homes (although a homeowner’s liability insurance policy might cover them);
  • Farm workers;
  • Maritime workers;
  • Railroad employees; and
  • Unpaid volunteers.

So, an employer can argue that an injured worker belongs to one of these classes of workers and is not covered by workers’ compensation. However, certain employees, e.g., maritime workers or railroad employees, may be covered by other federal or state programs, e.g., the federal Jones Act for seamen. Or, a worker who is suffering from an industrial disease may be able to seek a remedy through a lawsuit for negligence or strict product liability.

Do I Need the Help of a Lawyer for My Industrial Disease Issue?

Industrial diseases may involve very serious medical and legal issues. Industrial diseases can render a person unable to work for a living. If you believe that your health condition is the result of the conditions of your employment, you need to consult an experienced workers’ compensation lawyer in your area for help.

Your attorney can provide the advice you need for your work-related injury claims. Your lawyer can determine whether you should file a workers’ compensation claim, a lawsuit for negligence, or a lawsuit for strict product liability. Your lawyer can represent you in negotiations, in court, or before a government agency.

If you are an employer, a workplace accident lawyer can advise you of the procedures you need to have in place to protect employees from industrial diseases and what to do if an employee claims a workplace injury or an industrial disease.

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