An occupational disease is an illness that develops in a worker as a result of his or her repeated exposure to a hazardous work condition. As opposed to the acute and traumatic nature of common construction site accidents, which we discussed in our previous post, many occupational diseases develop from long-term cumulative exposure to a work condition. For example, exposure to fine airborne particles, chemicals or biological agents are all risk factors for certain occupational diseases.
Occupational disease varies according to the type of work involved. For a nurse working in a hospital, infectious disease transmitted from a needle stick could be considered an occupational disease. For miners exposed over time to dust in the work environment, lung disease like silicosis could be an occupational disease.
Workers who acquire an occupational disease are eligible to collect benefits from workers' compensation. However, the challenge in these cases is to prove that the condition resulted from work-related exposure and not something else. When a construction worker falls from a ladder and sustains a head injury, it's hard to pretend that the injury didn't in fact happen at work, but rather at home or in another situation wherein the employer would not be liable.
In the case of occupational disease, however, the proof can be trickier. An occupational disease sometimes takes time for symptoms to manifest– sometimes years. By the time they do, sometimes workers find that the statute of limitations to file a claim has already run out.
If you have a question about a possible occupational disease–of your own or of a loved one who is sick or has died from what you suspect was an occupational exposure — it's important to consult with an experienced lawyer who can provide clarity about your options and give you straight answers about the best way to proceed.