What can I do as an employee if I suspect that an illness or injury is work-related?
UPDATED: February 6, 2012
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The workers compensation system in place throughout the United States provides benefits not only for acute injuries, but also for any work-related illnesses or injuries that develop over time. Some examples of possible illnesses or injuries that might develop over time include repetitive stress injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, illnesses resulting from exposure to workplace toxins like asbestos-related cancers, among others. When a worker suspects that he or she has any kind of illness or injury that is work related, there are several key steps that should be taken in order to obtain workers comp benefits.
Reporting Work-Related Injuries
One of the first things an employee should do after suspecting that work-related illness or injury has occurred is to report the condition to the employer as soon as possible. For acute and immediate injuries, the legally-allowed timeframe for reporting the injury may be very limited, sometimes as short as 30 days or less after the accident itself, depending on the jurisdiction. For most illnesses (requiring a diagnosis by a doctor), or injuries with delayed-onset symptoms (such as toxic-exposure situations), the employee should be sure to report the illness as soon as it is diagnosed. Ignoring a legally-mandated reporting window can result in a claim for benefits being denied, regardless of the merits of the case.
Diagnosis of Work-Related Injuries
To receive workers compensation, an employee’s illness must be confirmed by a doctor. As such, probably the single most important thing to do is to see a physician and obtain a written diagnosis of your condition. In some situations, the employee must also see a doctor selected by the employer or the insurance company. Complying with this requirement (when it exists) and obtaining a thorough examination from the company-selected physician is essential. This means that your examining physician must be: 1) reasonably qualified; and, 2) willing and able to provide you with competent medical care. If you suspect you are not being properly diagnosed, or that you are not receiving adequate care, you can request a different doctor or, if necessary, file a complaint with your state workers compensation board.
Proving Work-Related Injuries
To effectively make a workers compensation complaint, an employee must also demonstrate that the injury or illness arose in the performance of his or her required work duties. This means that you must be able to show the event that caused you harm or injury (whether an accident or an exposure) actually happened at – and during – your work. Sometimes this is an easy showing to make, e.g. - when a piece of workplace equipment causes you an acute injury. In such cases, you usually don’t need to worry about proving that the employer was negligent in a material way.
But, injuries that develop over time (e.g. – toxic exposure diseases), and injuries that simply don’t have readily noticeable symptoms or indicators, can sometimes be a source of contention a proving that the injury was caused by something work-related is more difficult. Your doctor may be able to help - if he or she can attest to the cause.
You may also want to take steps to determine if other co-workers suffered from similar exposures or illnesses as having multiple employees from one company experiencing the same type of illnesses or injuries can go a long way toward proving the problem was work related.
Getting Legal Help
If you’ve filed a workers compensation complaint, you probably already know that all sorts of problems, delays, disagreements or just plain confusion can occur. For instance, if the company doctor examines you but disagrees with your chosen doctor’s diagnosis, or if the legal connection between your work and your injury is being challenged in court, you will need to do everything possible to build up support for your case. Finding an experienced and caring legal advocate can be an important step in this process. Even if they are not representing you in court, they can still help you apply effective strategies, navigate procedural blockages, and generate the necessary proof needed in your specific case.