Understand your right to compensation if you develop a work-related lung disease or illness
South Carolina workers are the backbone of their communities, tirelessly contributing to various sectors from construction to health care. But along with the individual demands of their jobs come various occupational hazards, one of the most insidious being respiratory diseases.
From inhaling toxic fumes in a factory to being exposed to airborne pathogens in a hospital, workers in Columbia are at risk for a range of respiratory issues that can have life-altering consequences. Understanding workers’ compensation in the context of respiratory diseases is crucial not just for employees but also for employers who aim to create a safe work environment.
This article will discuss the complexities of claiming workers’ compensation for respiratory diseases in Columbia, offering insights and guidance to workers trying to navigate this often challenging legal landscape.
What is an occupational respiratory disease?
An occupational respiratory disease or illness is a lung condition that arises from exposure to harmful substances or conditions in the workplace. These diseases can range from mild respiratory irritations to severe, life-threatening conditions.
What causes work-related lung illnesses and diseases?
The risk factors for developing an occupational respiratory disease can vary greatly depending on the industry. For example, workers in construction, mining and manufacturing can be exposed to dust, chemicals or asbestos, which can lead to conditions like silicosis or asbestosis. On the other hand, health care workers are often exposed to viruses that can result in severe respiratory infections.
It’s important to note that occupational settings with poor ventilation can further contribute to the development of respiratory diseases by allowing harmful substances to accumulate in the air. Personal factors like smoking can also exacerbate the risks associated with occupational exposures.
Prevention and early diagnosis are key to managing these diseases, but when prevention fails, understanding your rights and options for workers’ compensation becomes essential.
What is the most common work-related respiratory disorder?
According to a 2019 study, asthma is the most common work-related lung disease. Symptoms include wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. It’s often triggered by inhaling irritants such as fumes, gasses or dust in workplaces like factories and construction sites.
Other common work-related lung diseases and illnesses include the following:
- COPD. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is characterized by a persistent cough and breathing difficulties. Long-term exposure to irritants like tobacco smoke and industrial fumes can cause or exacerbate COPD.
- Interstitial or fibrotic lung diseases. These conditions lead to symptoms like a dry cough and shortness of breath due to the scarring of lung tissues. Exposure to substances like asbestos and silica often causes these diseases.
- Hypersensitivity pneumonitis. Symptoms include coughing, difficulty breathing and fever following exposure to allergens. It commonly occurs in farming or woodworking environments where organic dust is prevalent.
- Lung cancer. A chronic cough and breathing difficulties are common symptoms of lung cancer. Prolonged exposure to carcinogens like asbestos, arsenic and certain chemicals increases the risk of developing lung cancer.
- Lung infections. Symptoms include fever, cough and breathing difficulties. Health care workers and others exposed to infectious agents are particularly at risk.
- Silicosis. Characterized by coughing and fatigue, silicosis occurs after prolonged inhalation of silica dust, common in the mining and construction sectors.
- Coccidioidomycosis or Valley fever. Symptoms include fever, a cough and fatigue. It’s common among outdoor workers in the southwestern U.S. due to their exposure to certain fungal spores.
- Histoplasmosis. This lung infection manifests as flu-like symptoms, including fever and cough. People working in environments with bird or bat droppings, like cave explorers or roofers, are at risk.
- Bronchiolitis obliterans. Also referred to as “popcorn lung,” this incurable lung disease causes a severe cough and shortness of breath. Workers exposed to diacetyl in food-flavoring factories or those inhaling harsh chemicals are most at risk.
- Byssinosis or brown lung disease. Symptoms include chest tightness and coughing, particularly at the beginning of the workweek. It’s associated with exposure to cotton dust in textile factories.
- Asbestosis/mesothelioma. Asbestosis leads to progressive lung scarring, while mesothelioma is a rare lung cancer. Both are linked to asbestos exposure in construction or shipbuilding jobs.
- Coal workers’ pneumoconiosis. Also known as “black lung,” symptoms include a cough and shortness of breath. It’s common among coal miners exposed to coal dust.
Who is most affected by occupational respiratory disease?
Workers in certain industries are at higher risk of developing work-related respiratory diseases and illnesses due to their environment and exposure to chemicals and other irritants. The workers most at risk include:
- Cleaners and janitors
- Shipyard workers
- Workers in cotton and textile industries
Can you claim for chronic lung disease?
Yes, most workers who develop a respiratory disease or illness as a direct result of their job duties or work environment are entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. In South Carolina, most employers with 4 or more employees are required to purchase workers’ compensation insurance, which provides benefits to workers who become injured or ill on the job.
To qualify for these benefits, a worker needs to be able to prove that their injury or illness is job-related. However, this can sometimes be challenging in cases involving respiratory illnesses like asthma or COPD, which can arguably be caused by multiple factors or be exacerbated by pre-existing conditions.
In such cases, an experienced workers’ compensation attorney is an essential resource for helping you document your illness and gather the evidence you need to prove a correlation between your illness and your job.
Learn which pre-existing conditions may be covered by workers’ compensation insurance, and find out how to receive benefits if you’re affected.
How can I prove an occupational illness or disease is work-related?
Since some respiratory illnesses like asthma can’t be easily linked to one specific source, you may be wondering, How do you prove asthma for work?
The reality is that proving that a respiratory illness like asthma is work-related involves several steps and usually requires substantial evidence.
First, you’ll need a medical diagnosis confirming that you have asthma. Your health care provider should document your symptoms, triggers, and the results of any tests, such as spirometry or peak flow monitoring.
Next, you’ll need to show a causal link between your asthma symptoms and your work environment. This could involve documenting exposure to known asthma triggers in your workplace, like chemicals, dust or fumes and consulting medical experts. An attorney may also be able to help you gather evidence such as air quality reports, witness statements or photographs that can help with your claim.
You’ll also want to keep a detailed log of when your symptoms occur, especially if they improve when you’re away from work. Some cases might require an occupational disease specialist’s assessment to prove that the work environment is the cause of the asthma.
Consulting an attorney who specializes in workers’ compensation can often streamline the process and increase your chances of a successful workers’ comp claim.
What types of workers’ compensation benefits am I entitled to?
If you are diagnosed with a work-related respiratory disease and qualify for workers’ compensation, the types of benefits you may be entitled to can vary depending on your situation and jurisdiction. Generally, you can expect some or all of the following:
- Medical benefits. Workers’ compensation typically covers the full cost of all necessary medical treatments, including hospital stays, medications, and ongoing care related to your respiratory disease.
- Wage loss benefits. If your respiratory disease requires you to take time off work for recovery or prevents you from returning to work, you may be eligible for lost income benefits, which are typically two-thirds of your average weekly wage.
- Death benefits. If you die due to a work-related respiratory disease, your dependents may be entitled to death benefits, which can include funeral costs and financial support for lost income.
How long do I have to file a workers’ comp claim in South Carolina?
In South Carolina, you have 90 days after an injury or illness or the discovery of an illness or disease to report the condition to your employer. After you notify your employer, it’s their responsibility to file the necessary paperwork to start your claim.
Since many occupational diseases and illnesses develop slowly over time, it’s crucial to report it to your employer as soon as you become aware of it or receive a diagnosis so you don’t miss your chance at compensation. Failure to notify your employer within the required timeframe can result in a denied claim.
Learn the steps to take immediately after a work injury or illness in South Carolina to increase your chance of receiving workers’ comp benefits.
Can I sue my employer for COPD?
The ability to file a personal injury lawsuit against your employer for COPD or any other occupational disease is limited if you accept workers’ compensation benefits.
In the U.S., workers’ compensation is considered an “exclusive remedy,” which means that it’s typically the only avenue for employees to obtain compensation for work-related injuries or illnesses. This system protects employers from being sued in most circumstances, in exchange for providing benefits regardless of who’s at fault.
However, there are exceptions where you might be able to sue your employer, such as:
- Intentional misconduct. If your employer deliberately exposed you to harmful conditions, knowing it would lead to COPD or aggravated your condition intentionally, some jurisdictions may allow you to file a lawsuit.
- Lack of workers’ compensation. If your employer is legally required to have workers’ compensation insurance but doesn’t, you may be able to pursue a civil suit.
- Violation of federal or state laws. In certain situations where the employer’s conduct violates federal or state safety regulations, additional legal remedies may be available.
If you’re considering taking such legal action, it’s crucial to consult a work injury attorney who can help you understand your rights and options.
Get help from an experienced Columbia work injury attorney
Navigating the complexities of workers’ compensation claims for respiratory diseases can be a challenging process filled with legal hurdles. A specialized workers’ comp attorney can provide invaluable expertise, helping you to understand your rights, the kinds of benefits you’re entitled to, and how to strengthen your claim.
They can also assist in gathering the necessary medical evidence and work-related documentation to prove that your respiratory condition is job-related. Consulting with an attorney can significantly increase your chances of receiving the compensation you deserve, ensuring that you can focus on your health without worrying about financial burdens.
If you’ve developed a work-related respiratory disease or illness and would like help with your claim, contact the experienced Columbia workers’ compensation attorneys at Chappell, Chappell & Newman. Our attorneys have more than 30 years of experience helping injured South Carolina workers recover maximum workers’ comp benefits.
Contact our office today to schedule your free consultation.
Vlahovich, K. P., & Sood, A. (2020). A 2019 Update on Occupational Lung Diseases: A Narrative Review. Pulmonary Therapy. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41030-020-00143-4