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Viruses, Infections, Breathing Disorders and Workers Comp

  • Dave Brown, Esquire
  • 02/17/2020

The coronavirus has dominated the headlines recently, as countless people have contracted the infection, including workers on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship. While this outbreak has occurred on the other side of the world, it raises the question of whether somebody is entitled to Workers’ Compensation benefits if they don’t sustain a discrete injury to a body part — such as a broken foot, strain of the back, or torn biceps — but instead contracts a virus, infection, or breathing disorder as a result of their work environment. The answer can be yes depending on the circumstances. We’ll explain by giving you some examples.

Let’s say that you work in a restaurant kitchen, and your job requires you to use cleaning products with strong chemicals to scrub down ovens and other appliances. You develop shortness of breath, a dry mouth, and a bad cough. These symptoms get worse as you continue to work so you go to your family doctor who prescribes medication. Eventually, your condition gets so bad that your doctor takes you out of work.

Scenario number 2: you work in a building that is very old. In certain parts of the building — a storage room, a hallway, a bathroom — you observe mold and also notice a strong, foul odor. You start to have headaches and feel sick to your stomach. You try over-the-counter medication like Tylenol and Pepto Bismol, but they do not work. You want to avoid seeing a doctor, hoping that your symptoms will go away but they persist, so you make an appointment with your primary care physician, who recommends that you take off time from your job.

So what happens in these situations? Could you receive Workers’ Comp benefits? Here are some things to keep in mind if you find yourself in a predicament like this.

— As soon as you begin to experience these symptoms, notify your supervisor. Let him or her know that you feel like your symptoms have been caused by what you were exposed to at work — cleaning products, mold — whatever it is. You may be asked to complete an incident report and see one of the doctors listed on your employer’s panel of designated medical providers for Workers’ Comp claims. If you say nothing about your symptoms and continue to work for six months or a year before you say something, and then notify your supervisor, this could jeopardize your entitlement to Workers’ Comp benefits.

— Be aware if any of your co-workers are experiencing the same or similar symptoms as you. If you work in an area with 10 other people, and you think there is a strong odor which is making you nauseous, but none of your co-workers notice the smell or complain that they feel sick, this could weaken your claim as your employer may take the position that “it’s all in your head.” But if a few other people that you work with have also gotten ill and complained to the supervisor, this will help validate your claim.

— Make sure you are evaluated by a pulmonary specialist. If the first doctor you see is your employer’s occupational medicine physician, don’t be surprised if that physician tries to downplay your symptoms and send you back to work. If that happens, ask the doctor to refer you to a pulmonologist who specializes in treating breathing disorders. If you have been evaluated by your primary care physician, it is likely that the physician will refer you to a pulmonary specialist for additional testing and evaluations. This is important because if your Workers’ Comp claim is denied and your case goes before a Workers’ Compensation judge, you will need a physician on your side who is of the opinion that your symptoms which are preventing you from working were caused by your work environment.

These cases are harder to win than your typical back, knee, or shoulder workers’ comp claim. Much like you need a physician who is a specialist, you need a lawyer who is a specialist in workers’ compensation law. workers’ comp is all we do at Pearson Koutcher Law. Please contact us and one of our experienced, knowledgeable Workers’ Comp lawyer will meet with you and represent you in your claim.