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The uphill battle for disease-related workers' comp: Part II

We are continuing a conversation in today's post about occupational illness and the struggle for workers' compensation benefits. By some estimates, the rate of deaths from occupational diseases is nine times higher than the rate of fatal workplace injuries. Yet injuries are far more likely to be compensated than occupational diseases are.

Workers' compensation was designed to be a "grand bargain" that allowed workers to be quickly compensated for workplace injuries or illnesses while shielding employers from potentially costly lawsuits. Unfortunately, workers' compensation programs in most states have been weakened over time, making it more difficult for injured and ill workers to get relief. Especially problematic are the administrative hurdles that end up blocking most occupational illness claims.

Unreasonable statutes of limitation

Many deadly work-related diseases have long latency periods. Mesothelioma, related to asbestos exposure, often takes 30 years or more to develop. Bladder cancer, which can be caused by exposure metalworking fluids and coal tar, generally takes between 15 and 40 years to develop.

Unfortunately, many states have set very short statutes of limitation (often just a few years at most). To add insult to injury, these time limits often start on the date of last exposure, not the date when the illness was discovered. As a hypothetical example, a person could be diagnosed with bladder cancer 25 years after exposure, but the statute of limitations may be only two to three years. How can you file claim for a disease that won't develop for several decades?

Unreasonable burden of proof

Even if someone is able to file an occupational disease claim within the allotted timeframe, they may still be forced to prove that their disease was most likely or definitely work-related. Diseases like cancer are largely considered "ordinary" diseases that anyone can develop. Some states go so far as to require workers to show that their disease could not have been caused or exacerbated by any factors other than hazards faced in the workplace.

Final thoughts

Sadly, the workers' compensation system often fails the very workers it was designed to help. Occupational illness cases are especially problematic.

That being said, filing an occupational illness claim is not impossible. But it does require careful documentation, timely action and good legal help. If you believe that you may have suffered toxic exposure at work and are now worried about your health, please discuss your concerns with an experienced workers' compensation attorney.

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