Understanding Occupational Disease claims after employment ends
Occupational Disease claims often occur after employment has ended and can increase when there are layoffs and terminations. Hearing loss claims are one such example.
Understanding how Occupational Disease claims differ from the standard Workers' Comp accident claims is important in preventing and managing the claim.
In theory, a claim for Occupational Disease occurs when:
1. the employee is exposed to a hazard greater than what the normal public is exposed to,
2. the exposure is common to that occupation,
3. contracted during employment and
4. not considered an 'ordinary disease of life'.
Once this occurs, Occupational Disease benefits are payable according to the 'last injurious exposure'. If you were the last employer of an employee who was 'exposed' to the hazard, that incident could become the 'tipping over the edge' claim. The job site was the last exposure the employee had to that particular hazard and therefore the employer becomes the bearer of the benefits due and payable.
For example, if the noise level in a plant is a level higher than the general public experiences, an exposure is created. Establishing a causal connection between the workplace exposure and a worker's injury or disease is a basic requirement for establishing the compensability of a work-related claim. It therefore behooves the employer to have a baseline audio test performed for all employees subject to the exposure. This is NOT an expensive test and can be performed at most facilities that do post-hire testing.
This test then becomes the base level against any future claim for loss. It may not mean the employer can deny total benefits but it may minimize the costs by showing the 'true' level of loss from baseline to 'claim'.
The results of baseline testing may be the only defense available. This would also include noise testing by a certified professional to establish noise levels. This test would also be able to determine if testing would be needed for the entire plant or just in a specific area.
In general, if the employer knows there is a 'hazard' greater than what the general public is exposed to (whatever that hazard might be), the employer should determine the availability of 'baseline' tests and the associated costs. Then, establish a procedure to incorporate the test into everyday practice whereby every employee gets an initial test and an additional periodic test, as appropriate, for the particular exposure. Carefully recording and maintaining the data provides critical evidence when a claim is filed.