The Most Common Types of Occupational Diseases
Industrial sicknesses and injuries you can get at work – and when to talk to a lawyer
Injuries and diseases in the workplace are unfortunately very common. Whether they are a laceration on the arm from a lathe, inhalation of asbestos over a period of years or a stumble down the stairs while visiting the vending machine, they can run the gamut and all deserve to be validated. Learn more and reach out to a workers’ compensation lawyer right here.
For those of you who have seen Christian Bale’s very disturbing movie The Machinist, you have no further need of mental images to illustrate the concept of occupational injury. For those of you who haven’t, here is a quick primer: Christian Bale plays a character that has complete and total insomnia, and he also happens to work as an industrial lathe operator. Those two things should never, ever mix, because guess what? You need your mental faculties to be sharp when you’re working with industrial equipment.
Spoiler alert for those of you who haven’t seen the movie: A guy loses part of his arm when a machine malfunctions, which the other workers blame on Christian Bale. This is a prime example of an industrial injury.
People often confuse an occupational disease with an occupational injury. Both occur at places of employment and frequently result in workers’ compensation benefits, but they are quite different from each other. Let’s take a look at why.
What is an occupational disease vs. an occupational injury?
An occupational injury is when an employee is involved in a type of accident that results in physical harm, like an arm caught in an industrial lathe machine or a slip and fall on the workroom floor. If a bodily hurt can happen at a place of employment, then it can fall under this category.
An occupational disease, on the other hand, is when an employee develops a sickness because of prolonged exposure to something that causes him or her to become ill, which could be something like asbestos fibers or dust that collects in the lungs. Most of the time, the culprit is a type of toxic chemical. These diseases can arise from worker or employer neglect, and many times the dangers were known beforehand but dismissed.
As of 2015, the most recent data that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has available, there were 2.9 million nonfatal workplace illnesses and injuries reported by private industry employers, which occurred at a rate of 3.0 cases per 100 equivalent full-time workers. This shows a rate of decline (apart from 2012) for the past 13 years, with 48,000 fewer nonfatal injuries and illnesses in 2015 compared to the previous year.
What are the most common occupational diseases and injuries?
An occupational injury can be any type of physical harm that occurs at a place of business. So, cutting your arm on a broken piece of glass, hurting your back while moving boxes, getting hit by a company vehicle, being electrocuted by shorting wires, or anything else your mind can dream up. If has probably happened.
The Occupational Safety & Health Administration actually has what it calls the Big Four Construction Hazards for industrial injuries:
- Falls: OSHA requires that fall protection be provided at four feet in general industry, five feet in maritime industry, and six feet in construction. There must also be adequate fall protection in place (e.g., railings or a harness system) and written approval for equipment such as forklifts from a certified engineer.
- Electrocutions: These occur because of three reasons: unsafe installation, unsafe environment or unsafe work practices. Workers should use grounding, insulation, guarding, electrical protective devices and ensure a safe work environment, using proper lockout/tagout procedures. They should also be extremely careful in damp areas.
- Caught-in/between: Moving parts can cause extreme danger. All machines contain the same fundamental parts: 1) The point of operation; 2) the power transmission (i.e., belts and pulleys); and 3) operating controls. All proper lockout/tagout procedures must be followed, and no loose clothing should be worn on the machinery floor. Hair should be tied back, jewelry should not be worn and all extraneous bits that could be caught in machinery should be removed. The machinery should be cleaned regularly and jams should always be cleared promptly.
- Struck-by: Workers should always stay a safe distance away from machinery when possible. This is why pedestrian walkways are a good idea, as well as barriers and railings to separate people from the workroom floor. Alarms and mirrors for blind corners can also help workers stay alert.
Meanwhile, occupational diseases are a slightly different bag. Here are some of the most common ones that happen in the United States (this list by the International Labour Organization is far more comprehensive and, frankly, startling in its thoroughness):
- Chemical poisoning: Chemical burns and poisoning occur when someone has been exposed to harmful chemical elements without proper protection. This often happens because a worker was not properly trained regarding how to handle these materials, or they were not provided with appropriate clothing or equipment with which to do their job.
- Mesothelioma: You have probably heard daytime television commercials for class-action lawsuits regarding mesothelioma and industrial workers. A type of cancer that affects the thin membrane lining the abdomen is called the peritoneal mesothelioma. Another type affects the chest area and is called pleural mesothelioma. Exposure to asbestos is responsible for the majority of these cases. Common symptoms include fatigue; shortness of breath; lack of appetite; crackling in the lungs; clubbing of fingers and toes; and tightness and pain in the chest. People who work in plumbing, power stations and demolition are more likely to be susceptible to this illness.
- Industrial dermatitis: This is caused when an employee’s skin comes into direct contact with industrial irritants and can cause extreme cell damage. Prolonged exposure to these chemicals can lead to chronic dermatitis.
- Industrial asthma: Asthma can occur when workers are exposed to certain airborne toxins during the course of their workday. Oftentimes, workers who lay cement or frequent construction sites might be harmed by breathing Potassium Dichromate. This form of asthma can be extremely serious if the individual continues to breathe this harmful substance on a long-term basis.
- Neurological disorders: The nervous system is often a frequent target of toxins and can cause serious issues if one is exposed to harmful contaminants. Frequent headaches, fatigue and lightheadedness are common symptoms of nerve damage and can also illustrate themselves as numbness and loss of control in the limbs.
- Stress-related injuries: Emotional stress injuries can be difficult to prove, much less win, because one must show that the stress has come from work and not from his or her personal life. Stress can result from many sources, such as being overworked, an abusive boss or dealing with difficult coworkers/employees.
How to find help in the workplace
The workplace should be safe for all employees, but unfortunately this isn’t always the case. It is important to stay aware of these issues that can greatly harm your health and wellbeing. If you’ve been exposed to something at your place of employment that you believe is causing illness or if you have been injured, report it to your supervisor immediately. Not tomorrow or the day after – immediately.
If you’re not sure your case qualifies, your supervisor will tell you that. This is the only way to preserve your legal rights. Follow the steps listed in this article on how to report a workers’ compensation injury.
If you have difficulty obtaining compensation that is owed to you, you may have to find a skilled local workers' compensation attorney to stand as your legal representative.
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