In a legal context, a work-related injury is one that is caused by a person’s work tasks, or that results from the performance of their described job duties. Work injuries include injuries that happen over a long period of time, as well as injuries resulting from one singular incident. Some of the most common examples include injuries such as:
- Occupational diseases, such as those resulting from exposure to toxic materials, which will be further discussed later on;
- Repetitive stress injuries;
- Occupational stress;
- Respiratory illnesses; and
- Lower back injuries, such as those resulting from heavy lifting or straining.
It is important to note that some work-related injuries, such as occupational stress, are also associated with psychological and/or emotional injury. Because of this, they are frequently the basis of legal claims. However, the claimant is more likely to succeed if they also have physical manifestations of an injury that were caused by the psychological factors. An example of this would be fibromyalgia presenting itself in someone who has C-PTSD.
What Is OSHA?
OSHA, or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, is a governmental department created to provide, regulate, and enforce safety and health standards in various workplace settings. Generally speaking, if an employee has any complaints or concerns associated with workplace safety, they must file a complaint with OSHA. Doing so could result in an investigation being conducted by OSHA agents, as well as subsequent legal action if needed.
OSHA provides a list of topics that may be of concern to both employers and employees who have questions regarding their right to a safe work environment. This list of topics is known as the “OSHA Safety Topics” list; additionally, when available, OSHA provides specific information as well as standards for each specific topic for both employers and employees. These topics frequently form the basis of most OSHA complaints and workplace lawsuits.
Because the OSHA topics list is considerably exhaustive, a few examples of some of the most common topics include:
- Agricultural Processes and Operations;
- Chemical Hazards and/or Toxic Substances;
- Fall Protection;
- Hazardous Waste;
- Musculoskeletal Disorders;
- Occupational Conditions, such as Occupational Asthma, Occupational Heat Exposure,
- Occupational Noise Exposure, and other such conditions which will be further discussed below;
- Ventilation and Indoor Air Quality;
- Welding and other Metal-Working Issues; and
- Wood Dust.
Researching this list, as it is updated often, can be a good way in which to learn whether or not you have been subject to or exposed to a safety and health violation at work. Remedies for violations most commonly include damages awards for:
- Lost wages;
- Medical expenses;
- Damaged property; and
- Various other related costs.
To reiterate, OSHA regulations cover both safety and health aspects in the workplace. The terms “safety” and “health” are commonly used in combination or interchangeably. However, it is important to note that each term refers to separate sets of specific issues. “Safety” largely refers to dangerous conditions in the workplace that might cause injuries, such as:
- A falling object;
- Trip hazards; and
- Electrocution and/or burn hazards.
Alternatively, the term “health” refers to the state of physical wellness in terms of the individual worker. This encompasses issues such as:
- Occupational diseases and industrial diseases, which are diseases that are associated with a specific line of work, such as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis;
- Repetitive stress injuries and/or chronic pain;
- Mental and/or psychological distress that is caused by working conditions; and
- The effects of long-term handling toxic substances at work.
While the two terms reference different things, there is commonly overlap between safety issues and health issues. An example of this would be how occupational health laws assign various burdens in order to ensure that work conditions are safe, and promote an atmosphere of health for workers. Failure to adhere to these especially high standards can result in legal consequences for the employer.
What Is Occupational Disease?
Occupational disease, or an occupational illness, is a disease or ailment resulting from the unique characteristics of a specific line of work. One of the defining requirements for occupational disease claims is that the person’s line of work exposes them to risk factors which differ from those that the general public is exposed to.
Occupational disease can result in workers compensation, although it is generally different from a disability claim. An example of this would be how in an occupational disability claim, the injury or illness generally results from long-term exposure to factors in the work environment, such as toxic chemicals. Unlike with disability claims, an employee generally cannot file an occupational disease claim for one-time traumatic events.
The most common examples of occupational disease or occupational illness are those involving long-term exposure to toxic substances. An example of this would be how asbestosis and mesothelioma, which is caused by exposure to asbestos, frequently necessitate occupational disease lawsuits.
Some other common examples of occupational disease include:
- Respiratory illnesses, such as bronchitis;
- Specific types of cancers;
- Skin diseases such as skin cancer, severe sunburn, and eczema;
- Poisoning such as lead poisoning, or pesticide poisoning; and
- Rarer diseases such as pneumoconiosis, which is associated with coal mining, and byssinosis, which is associated with the cotton textile industry.
If an employee is experiencing symptoms that are generally commonplace, they must prove that they became ill because of their work, and not unrelated factors. This is because the laws governing occupational disease claims require the illness to be either directly caused by the type of work, or very closely associated with the nature of the work.
An example of this would be if an employer has contracted for painters to paint the inside of their business office, and an employer becomes ill due to the painting. The employee might be able to file a disability claim, but not an occupational disease claim, because their job is unrelated to the painting. Alternatively, a painter may be able to file an occupational disease claim if they were exposed to toxic paint chemicals throughout their years of working with the toxic paint.
How Is Occupational Health Protected?
To reiterate, there are various laws and government departments which regulate both health and safety in the workplace. The majority of occupational health issues and incidents are initially handled through an OSHA complaint, which will generally prompt OSHA to investigate the claim as well as the workplace in which the complaint was generated.
An OSHA investigation will most likely uncover more details associated with the complaint. After conducting their investigation, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration may prescribe a remedy for the situation. An example of this would be an adjustment in company safety guidelines, or a cessation of a specific work practice or policy.
However, if an OSHA filing does not completely remedy the situation, it may be necessary to file a private lawsuit. This is commonly associated with considerably more serious cases, such as those in which the violation has resulted in a larger economic loss that can be directly quantified into a monetary amount. Additionally, these may be necessary for more widespread health concerns that affect a considerably large number of workers.
Do I Need An Attorney For Occupational Health Lawsuits?
If you are involved in an occupational health lawsuit, whether as the employer or the employee, you will need to consult with an area worker’s compensation attorney.
An experienced and local lawyer can help you understand your legal rights and options under your state’s specific laws regarding occupational health lawsuits. Additionally, an attorney will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.