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  • Occupational Illnesses

    In Pennsylvania, employees are eligible to collect Workers’ Compensation benefits for injuries sustained at work and for occupational illnesses. Occupational illnesses are diseases or disorders that typically develop over time after repeated exposure to toxins in the workplace.

    Common occupations that can result in illness include construction, health care, firefighting, and factory work. Sometimes, a person who does not work in a hazardous job can be unknowingly exposed to toxins. An example is an office setting where toxic mold could be present in the heating and cooling system.

    What Are the Different Types of Occupational Illnesses?

    Specific diseases related to certain occupations are formally recognized as occupational diseases, including:

    • Tuberculosis and hepatitis for nurses, blood processors, and related professionals exposed to these diseases.
    • A disease of the heart and lungs for firefighters who have four or more years of service.
    • Pneumoconiosis and silicosis for any occupation that involves direct contact with or exposure to coal dust.
    • Specific types of chemical poisoning, such as lead, arsenic, and mercury, for occupations involving direct contact or exposure or the preparation of compounds.

    The Pennsylvania Occupational Disease Act (PODA) lists the following specific illnesses that are covered under Workers’ Compensation.

    Toxic Chemical Poisoning and Skin Diseases

    The CDC reports that more than 13 million workers in the United States are exposed to toxic chemicals absorbed through their skin.

    Workers in landscaping, construction, carpet cleaning, floor covering installation, and other occupations are at risk for chemical exposure. These toxic chemicals include arsenic, lead, mercury, manganese, beryllium, and phosphorous and can cause:

    • Rash caused by skin irritation and allergies.
    • Skin cancers, infections, and injuries.
    • Lung diseases.
    • Respiratory diseases.
    • Neurological disorders.
    • Cancers of the blood and organs.

    Asbestosis and Mesothelioma

    Although asbestos is now strictly regulated, workers can still be exposed. Asbestos is a toxic mineral that can cause asbestosis and mesothelioma:

    • Asbestosis is a chronic and serious lung respiratory disease.
    • Mesothelioma is an aggressive form of cancer.

    Lung Diseases

    Workers who handle silicon dioxide, anthracite dust, or bituminous coal are at risk of developing serious lung diseases. These include:

    • Silicosis: Silicosis is incurable scarring of the lungs from inhalation of silica dust found in sand, rock, and minerals. Over time, silica can build up in the lungs, making it difficult to breathe and often proving fatal.
    • Anthracosilicosis: This is a thickening and scarring of the lungs resulting from inhalation of carbon and quartz dust and marked by shortness of breath.
    • Coal worker’s pneumoconiosis: Also known as black lung disease. Coal worker’s pneumoconiosis is caused by exposure to coal dust. It causes scarring in the lungs, impairing the ability to breathe.
    • Brown lung: Brown lung disease, also called byssinosis, is a debilitating pulmonary condition most common among workers who handle unprocessed cotton.
    • Bronchiolitis obliterans: Bronchiolitis obliterans is an inflammatory obstruction of the lung’s tiny airways, called bronchioles, leading to extensive scarring that eventually blocks the airways. This disease is sometimes called popcorn lung.
    • Flock worker’s lung: Flock worker’s lung is caused by exposure to flock, small fibers glued to a backing to create a specific texture. People who work in flocking, such as textile workers, are at risk of inhaling small pieces of the flock fibers, which causes interstitial lung disease.

    Hepatitis and Infectious Diseases

    Health care and laboratory workers are at risk of contracting hepatitis and other infectious diseases from needlestick injuries and other workplace accidents. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports approximately 800,000 needlestick injuries each year.

    Workers in jails, prisons, and social services are also at risk for infectious diseases since they regularly work with high-risk populations.

    What Types of Workers Are at Risk of Occupational Illnesses?

    Some workers are more susceptible to occupational illnesses:

    • Miners: Any job that involves mining, drilling, or blasting through the earth can expose workers to harmful specks of dust that can cause diseases, such as those mentioned above.Industries Occupational Illnesses
    • Construction workers: Construction workers who work with concrete, cement, insulation, drywall products, sanding, or drilling tools are at risk of disease due to silica exposure. Construction workers are also at risk due to wood dust exposure. Chemical fumes can also put construction workers at risk. Products like insulation, paint, polyurethane, blown foam, carpeting, solvents, and glues can release chemical fumes, causing asthma, chronic bronchitis, or skin conditions. Construction workers who work on older buildings may also come in contact with asbestos, which causes severe lung diseases and lung cancer.
    • Welders: Welding involves working with molten metal that produces toxic fumes. Many metals themselves are toxic when heated, but metal coatings can also be dangerous. According to the CDC, manganese is particularly harmful and is present in all welding fumes. It can cause a Parkinson’s-like disease. Welding fumes may also cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), including emphysema and chronic bronchitis and cancers of the lung, larynx, and urinary tract.
    • Workers exposed to diesel fumes: Diesel fumes can cause lung cancer and increase the risk of heart and respiratory disease. Occupations at risk for diesel fume exposure include those where diesel equipment operates in an enclosed area, such as a mine, tunnel, or garage. Those who work on loading docks, bridges, railroads, and farms also can have diesel exposure.
    • Workers exposed to noise: Working around noisy machinery and tools puts people at risk for one of the most common job-related health problems: hearing loss. The OSHA reports that about 30 million workers in the United States are exposed to harmful noise levels each year. Long-term exposure to high noise levels can cause permanent hearing loss and ringing in the ears, also known as tinnitus.
    • Workers exposed to nylon fibers: Those who work in areas where nylon is cut into small strands, called flock, can develop flock worker’s lung. Flock is used to make various household items, including carpets, upholstery, and blankets.
    • Aerospace industry workers: Beryllium is a light metal used in missiles, spacecraft, airplanes, and satellites. It can be absorbed through the skin, causing irritation, or inhaled, causing lung cancer or berylliosis, a serious lung disease.
    • Flavorings and popcorn workers: Workers in microwave popcorn plants and others who work with flavorings may develop a lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans, or popcorn lung. According to the CDC, more than 1,000 flavoring ingredients can be potentially hazardous to workers’ health, including butter flavoring for frostings, syrups, potato chips, cake mixes, and margarine.

    Suspect Occupational IllnessWhat Should I Do if I Develop an Occupational Illness?

    If you suspect your job and workplace caused your illness, report your illness to your employer within 120 days of being diagnosed, preferably in writing. The time begins on the date of your injury or the date you knew or should have known of an occupational illness.

    If you do not provide notice within 21 days, you will not be entitled to recover Workers’ Compensation benefits until you give notice if notice is given within 120 days. Failure to give notice within 120 days will bar you from collecting benefits.

    A Workers’ Compensation claim must be filed within three years of the injury. Note that for occupational illness claims, an additional requirement is that the worker’s disability occurred within 300 weeks of their last exposure to the hazardous workplace substance. Therefore, if an occupational illness does not cause disability or death until after the 300-week timeframe, the worker will likely not be approved for Workers’ Compensation benefits.

    What Does Workers’ Compensation Cover?

    The Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act is a no-fault insurance system of benefits designed to compensate injured workers for lost wages and medical expenses. It provides compensation for injuries and occupational diseases that occur during the course and scope of one’s employment.

    The system does not replace all the wages lost by the injured worker, only a percentage. It also does not compensate for noneconomic damages, such as pain and suffering.

    Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation provides the following benefits.

    Total Disability Benefits

    Approximately two-thirds of the workers’ salary for total disability up to a maximum dollar amount provided by law is paid for the time lost from work if the disability lasts longer than seven calendar days.

    If you are unable to work due to your injuries, you will be eligible for temporary total disability benefits.   There is no time limitation for receiving temporary total disability benefits.  However, after receiving temporary total disability benefits for 104 weeks, the insurer may require you to undergo an Impairment Rating Evaluation (IRE). After that exam, the insurance company will consider you partially disabled if you have less than 35 percent whole-body impairment.  This does not change the amount of benefits that you receive, but will limit the duration of your benefits to 500 weeks.

    Partial Disability Benefits

    Partial disability benefits begin if you return to work earning less per week than your time-of-injury job.  If your new position pays less than the job you were doing when you were injured, you will receive two-thirds of the pay difference based on the average weekly wage up to the maximum pay rate the year you were injured.

    Your employer or the workers’ compensation insurance carrier may attempt to reduce your benefits to partial disability based on a Labor Market Survey.  A Labor Market Survey is a method to determine your “earning capacity” based on your ability to perform work based on your age, work restrictions, education, and prior work experience.

    Partial disability payments are payable for 500 weeks.

    Specific Loss Benefits

    If your injury resulted in the loss of a body part, loss of hearing or vision, or you suffered severe or permanent disfigurement to your neck, head, or face, you will be eligible for specific loss benefits. This benefit equals your total disability benefit and runs for a specific time.

    Medical Expenses

    Any medical expenses incurred as the result of your injury are covered, including:

    • Services provided by doctors or other health care providers.
    • Reasonable surgical and medical services needed.
    • Hospital treatment, services, and supplies. Workers’ Compensation provides semi-private rooms or private room accommodations if no semi-private rooms are available.
    • Prescription medicines and supplies.
    • Orthopedic appliances and supplies.

    The coverage also includes modifications needed to your vehicle to accommodate the injury. There are no time or other restrictions on payment for medical care for your injury.

    Travel Expenses

    If your treatment appointments take you out of the area where you work or live, you may qualify for travel expense reimbursement as part of your compensation. The insurer must also provide transportation to and from the location of your IME if you cannot get there on your own.

    Death Benefits

    If you die after a work injury, your heirs will be eligible for death benefits from your Workers’ Compensation coverage. Benefits are paid to your spouse until they remarry and your children under 18 years old unless they are enrolled full-time in an accredited school, in which case they will receive payment until they are 23 years old.  Benefits include reimbursement of $7,000 in funeral expenses for deaths occurring after October 24, 2018 (If the death occurred prior to October 24, 2018, reimbursement will be $3,000).

    Do I Need a Lawyer if I Develop an Occupational Illness?

    It is beneficial to consult with a lawyer if you are diagnosed with an illness recognized as or suspected of being caused by your job or workplace. An employer or their Workers’ Compensation insurer could make it difficult for an ill employee to prove the cause of the disease and the extent or duration of their disability.

    A lawyer can help manage any complexity that arises with your claim, including:

    • Employer denies your claim or accepts the medical claim but not the disability claim. Employers count on employees not appealing a denied claim.
    • Employer’s settlement offer does not cover all your lost wages or medical bills. A lawyer can help you get the best deal.
    • Employer files a petition to suspend or stop compensation payments.
    • Medical issues prevent you from returning to your previous job, limit what you can do at work, or keep you from performing any work. If you have suffered permanent disability, whether partial or total, insurance companies will often try to avoid paying you what you deserve. A knowledgeable lawyer is essential.
    • You receive or plan to apply for Social Security disability benefits. If your settlement is not structured correctly, your Workers’ Compensation benefits could significantly lower Social Security disability payments. Have a lawyer help.
    • You were injured or fell ill because of a third party’s actions. You can sue third parties in certain situations.

    Philadelphia Workers’ Compensation Lawyers at Galfand Berger LLP Will Protect Your Rights if You Have an Occupational Illness

    Our Philadelphia Workers’ Compensation lawyers at Galfand Berger LLP have successfully represented many workers with occupational illnesses. Call us at 800-222-USWA (8792) or complete our online form to schedule a free consultation. We serve clients throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania, including Allentown and Harrisburg, from our offices in Philadelphia, Bethlehem, Lancaster, and Reading, Pennsylvania.