Learn about your right to workers’ compensation benefits if you develop a work-related disease or illness
In Columbia, South Carolina, occupational diseases are a matter of increasing concern. Like many cities across the U.S., Columbia’s diverse work environment—ranging from manufacturing and construction to health care and education—presents a variety of occupational health risks. These risks can lead to diseases that not only affect the well-being of workers but also have broader economic and social implications.
Occupational diseases can manifest in many forms, including respiratory disorders, skin conditions or musculoskeletal issues, depending on the specific nature of the job and exposure. Understanding these diseases is crucial for prevention and early treatment, as well as for implementing effective workplace policies to safeguard employees.
If you believe you’ve developed a disease or illness caused by your job duties or work environment, this article will help you understand your rights to compensation and how to increase your odds of a successful workers’ comp claim.
What is an occupational disease?
An occupational disease is a health condition or disorder that is a direct result of certain conditions or exposures in the workplace. Unlike occupational injuries, which result from a one-time event, like a fall or machinery accident, occupational diseases typically develop over time due to ongoing exposure to harmful elements or conditions such as:
- Repetitive motion
Did you know?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 2 million people across the globe die every year from work-related causes. Of those deaths, a shocking 81% are caused by non-communicable diseases, with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) ranking at number one. By contrast, accidents and injuries at work are responsible for less than 20% of fatalities.
What are examples of occupational diseases?
Occupational diseases can affect many areas of the body and vary in severity from mild disorders that heal with rest to progressive diseases that can ultimately lead to a worker’s death. Below are some of the most common types.
Respiratory diseases in the workplace encompass a range of conditions affecting the lungs and other parts of the respiratory system. These diseases often develop due to ongoing exposure to harmful substances like dust, fumes, chemicals and other airborne irritants.
Common work-related respiratory diseases include:
- Asthma. This respiratory condition can be exacerbated or triggered by exposure to workplace irritants such as fumes, chemicals or dust, affecting workers in sectors like health care, manufacturing, cleaning services and more.
- Asbestosis. This is a lung disease caused by inhaling asbestos fibers, often affecting construction workers, shipyard workers, and those involved in asbestos removal. The disease is irreversible and characterized by lung scarring and chronic inflammation.
- Silicosis. Common among miners and stonecutters, this lung disease is caused by inhaling small particles of silica dust over extended periods. Symptoms can include a persistent cough, shortness of breath, and chest pain.
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). This progressive lung disease can be aggravated by occupational exposures to fumes, chemicals and dust, particularly in industries like mining and manufacturing.
Occupational cancers can be caused by prolonged exposure to harmful conditions or substances in the workplace, including:
- Chemicals like benzene, formaldehyde and arsenic
- Heavy metals like cadmium, chromium and nickel
- Silica dust
- Wood dust
- Textile fibers
Mesothelioma is a well-known type of occupational cancer linked to asbestos. Workers in certain industries like construction, shipbuilding and automotive repair have a heightened risk of asbestos exposure and, consequently, mesothelioma. This type of cancer can take decades to manifest, making early detection difficult and the prognosis generally poor.
Occupational skin conditions are among the most common types of occupational diseases and can have a significant impact on a worker’s quality of life. Perhaps the most prevalent work-related skin condition is contact dermatitis, which manifests as red, itchy and inflamed skin.
This condition often occurs due to direct skin contact with irritants or allergens like:
- Certain plants
Occupational hearing loss is a gradual loss of hearing ability that occurs due to prolonged exposure to high noise levels or ototoxic chemicals in the workplace (like lead, pesticides and mercury). This type of hearing loss is most commonly associated with industries that involve heavy machinery, construction, mining and manufacturing, where noise levels often exceed safe limits and workers may be regularly exposed to harmful chemicals.
Occupational hearing loss is generally irreversible, making preventive measures like the use of hearing protection equipment and regular hearing tests crucial for early detection and mitigation.
Occupational musculoskeletal disorders, or MSDs, impact the muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments and nerves of the body. These conditions commonly arise from repetitive actions, strong physical efforts, or awkward body positions during work.
These disorders are prevalent in jobs that involve heavy lifting, repetitive motion or long periods of sitting or standing, and they can significantly impact a worker’s ability to perform tasks and overall quality of life.
Common examples include:
- Carpal tunnel syndrome. This is a nerve disorder affecting the hands and wrists, often seen in jobs that require repetitive motion, like typing or assembly line work.
- Tendonitis. Often seen in jobs that require repetitive motion or forceful exertion, this condition involves inflammation or irritation of a tendon.
- Arthritis. Occupational arthritis can develop or worsen due to repetitive tasks, heavy lifting, or prolonged periods of standing or sitting, affecting the joints.
- Tennis elbow. Officially known as lateral epicondylitis, this condition affects workers who engage in repetitive wrist and arm motions, leading to pain in the outer elbow area.
- Trigger finger. This is a condition where a finger or thumb becomes stuck in a bent position, often occurring in workers who frequently grasp tools or engage in repetitive hand use.
Chronic pain syndrome
Chronic pain syndrome refers to persistent pain that lasts for more than 3 months and is often exacerbated by occupational factors such as repetitive motion, heavy lifting, or prolonged periods of sitting or standing. Unlike acute pain, which results from a specific injury and generally resolves with treatment, chronic pain persists long-term and can interfere with a person’s ability to perform their job effectively.
What is likely to cause long-term occupational health conditions?
Even when preventative measures and safety equipment are utilized, certain occupational hazards make it more likely that workers will develop job-related diseases and illnesses. Here are some key factors:
- Chemical exposure. Long-term exposure to toxic chemicals, solvents or heavy metals can lead to various health conditions, including cancer, neurological disorders and respiratory diseases.
- Physical strain. Jobs that require heavy lifting, pushing or pulling can contribute to chronic musculoskeletal problems like arthritis or back pain.
- Biological hazards. Workers in health care facilities and laboratories are at risk of long-term health issues due to exposure to viruses, bacteria and other biological agents.
- Noise exposure. Chronic exposure to high noise levels in the workplace can result in long-term hearing loss.
- Repetitive motion. Tasks that involve repetitive movements or postures, like typing or assembly line work, can lead to musculoskeletal disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis.
- Dust and particles. Long-term inhalation of dust, fibers, or particles like asbestos or silica can lead to respiratory diseases such as asbestosis or silicosis.
- Poor ergonomics. Inadequately designed workstations or tools can contribute to a variety of long-term health issues, ranging from vision problems to musculoskeletal disorders.
- Radiation. Prolonged exposure to ionizing radiation can increase the risk of cancers and other long-term health problems.
While not foolproof, preventive measures, such as proper training, safety protocols, and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), are essential in minimizing the risk of long-term occupational health conditions.
Why are occupational diseases common but difficult to diagnose?
Despite being relatively common, occupational diseases can be quite challenging to diagnose.
Many occupational diseases have a latency period, meaning symptoms may not appear until months or years after the initial exposure, making early diagnosis difficult.
Some symptoms may also be non-specific and mimic those of other ailments, which complicates the diagnostic process. Additionally, health care providers don’t always collect a detailed occupational history, further complicating efforts to establish a link between the symptoms and workplace exposures.
Stigma, fear of job loss, or a simple lack of awareness also frequently lead to underreporting, which in turn makes these conditions less likely to be correctly identified.
Lastly, intersecting factors like lifestyle choices or pre-existing conditions can muddle the diagnosis, as they may contribute to similar symptoms. Therefore, a multi-disciplinary approach, often involving occupational medicine specialists, epidemiologists and legal experts, is usually required to accurately diagnose and attribute the cause of occupational diseases.
Do occupational diseases qualify for workers’ comp benefits?
The good news is that most South Carolina workers who develop an occupational disease or illness qualify for workers’ comp benefits. These benefits cover all past and future medical bills and two-thirds of a worker’s lost wages while they’re unable to work. They also include death benefits for certain family members if a worker ultimately dies from an occupational disease.
To be eligible for these benefits, a worker doesn’t need to prove that their employer or anyone else negligently caused their disease; they only need to be able to prove that their disease is a direct result of their job.
In cases where a construction worker who works with asbestos develops mesothelioma, this can be relatively easy to do because it’s well established that asbestos exposure is the primary cause of mesothelioma.
However, the process of proving causality can be more difficult with other types of occupational diseases, like hearing loss, that can have more than one potential origin. In such cases, it’s highly recommended that you consult with an experienced work injury attorney to assist you with your claim.
How do you prove an occupational disease is work-related?
Proving that an occupational disease is work-related typically involves several key steps.
First, a comprehensive medical evaluation and diagnosis from a qualified health care provider are crucial. This would usually include diagnostic tests such as blood tests, X-rays or other imaging studies pertinent to the suspected condition. Next, a detailed occupational history should be compiled to document the nature of your work, the duration of your employment, and any known exposures to hazardous conditions or substances.
Seeking opinions from medical experts who specialize in occupational diseases can further establish the link between your condition and your workplace. At the same time, you may need to gather evidence from the workplace itself. This could involve measurements of exposure levels to hazardous substances or conditions, as well as ergonomic evaluations of your workspace.
While this process may seem overwhelming, you don’t have to tackle it on your own. A work injury attorney can provide invaluable assistance in proving that a disease is work-related.
First and foremost, they can guide you through the complexities of workers’ compensation law, ensuring you meet all the legal requirements and filing deadlines. They can also help you collect all the necessary documentation, including medical records and workplace assessments, and organize them into a compelling case.
Beyond document collection, an experienced attorney can connect you with medical experts who specialize in occupational diseases. These experts can offer assessments and testimonies that support the connection between your disease and your job, thereby strengthening your case.
Furthermore, your attorney can conduct investigations into your workplace, including obtaining safety records, incident reports and exposure level records, which can be critical evidence.
Legal representation becomes particularly crucial during negotiations with insurance companies or employers who may be seeking to minimize their liability. An attorney can advocate for you and ensure you receive the benefits you’re entitled to, whether through negotiation or litigation. If the case goes to court, the attorney will represent you, presenting all evidence and arguments to maximize your chances of a favorable outcome.
Get help with your occupational disease claim from an experienced Columbia work injury attorney
If you’re suffering from an occupational disease or illness, you need an experienced workers’ compensation attorney by your side to increase your chance of success. These types of cases can be difficult to prove, but an attorney can help you gather evidence and connect you with medical experts who can substantiate your claim to get you the compensation you deserve.
At Chappell, Chappell & Newman, we have more than 30 years of experience fighting for the rights of injured workers in Columbia and the surrounding areas. We have the knowledge and negotiating skills you need to get maximum compensation for your workers’ comp claim.
We’re happy to offer free, no-obligation consultations to answer your questions so you can make an informed decision about how to move forward. Contact our office today to set up an appointment to get started.
WHO/ILO: Almost 2 million people die from work-related causes each year. (2021, September 17).