Millions of Americans suffer from chronic illnesses or conditions, which may last for several years or even the span of their lifetimes. Chronic conditions often result in ongoing medical expenses and lost time from work. Fortunately, workers’ compensation provides benefits to employees who have developed these conditions as a result of their work-related activities.
Chronic Conditions Covered by Workers' Comp
Workers' comp benefits are available only for work-related injuries. Most people think of one-time accidents, such as a slip and fall or machinery accident, when they think of work-related accidents. However, workers’ comp also covers injuries or illnesses that develop slowly over time, such as repetitive motion injuries or occupational illnesses. Repetitive motion injuries occur when a worker repeats the same task at work over an extended period of time. Occupational illnesses are caused by ongoing exposures to harmful substances at the workplace. Although less common, workers’ comp may also cover medical conditions caused by stressful working conditions, such as heart disease or digestive problems.
Workers’ comp typically covers a wide range of chronic conditions resulting from work-related tasks or exposures. Some common conditions include:
- carpal tunnel syndrome (caused by typing)
- chronic back pain (caused by repeated bending movements)
- bursitis of the shoulder (due to repeated lifting movements above the head)
- asthma (from exposure to dusts or chemicals at the workplace)
- black lung (from exposure to coal dust), and
- mesothelioma (a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos).
As long as the chronic condition is related to work, you will be eligible for workers’ comp benefits. In many cases, your doctor will be able to establish that the injury is work-related. For example, if you type for eight hours a day, it is reasonable to conclude that your carpal tunnel was caused by work. In some cases, though, it may be more difficult to establish that your chronic condition is work-related. For example, a worker who develops lung cancer, tennis elbow, or arthritis may have to jump through extra hoops to show that these conditions were caused by work (as opposed to other events, such as smoking, playing tennis, or aging).
Workers’ comp may still cover an injury that is aggravated by work events, even if you have a preexisting condition that contributed to it. For example, suppose you have a history of back pain from a car accident that happened while you were on vacation years ago. If your back condition is aggravated because you are required to do heavy lifting at work, workers’ comp may compensate you for the worsening of your condition. However, this can be a complex area of workers’ comp law, and the specifics vary from state to state. If you had a preexisting health condition before your work injury, you should consult with a workers’ comp lawyer who is well-versed in these issues.
What to Do If You Have a Chronic Condition
Take the following steps if you think you have suffered a work-related chronic injury or illness.
- Seek medical attention. First and foremost, you should take care of yourself by getting proper medical attention. If you need emergency treatment, you can go to a doctor or hospital of your choosing. However, for all non-emergency treatment, you will have to follow your state’s rules for selecting a medical provider. The laws on choosing a treating doctor vary widely from state to state. (To find out more, see Medical Issues FAQs.)
- Report your injury. You should report your injury to your supervisor as soon as you realize that your condition was caused by your work. Each state has different time limits for doing so, which typically range from 30 to 90 days. However, the time limits could be as short as a few days. For example, in Alabama, you must give written notice within five days of the injury.
- File a workers' comp claim. Once you report your work-related injury, your employer should give you the necessary forms to file a workers’ comp claim. While each state has its own deadlines for filing a claim, the time frame is typically a year or two from the time it became clear that the condition was related to work. In Georgia, for example, a worker must file within one year of this date (if no benefits were paid out on the claim) or within two years of the last benefit payment (if the insurance company paid some benefits on the claim). You should consult with a lawyer about the deadlines in your state.
- Consider hiring an attorney. Proving that your chronic condition is work-related can get complicated, especially if you have a preexisting condition or if your condition can be blamed on your recreational activities. An experienced attorney can evaluate your case, deal with the insurance company on your behalf, and make sure that you get all the benefits to which you're entitled. (For help locating an attorney, see Where to Find a Workers’ Compensation Lawyer.)
Questions for Your Attorney
- Will I have trouble showing that my chronic condition is work-related?
- How can I get a second opinion from another doctor?
- Do you have experience representing workers with repetitive motion injuries or occupational diseases?