Occupational disease claims are those claims which arise where an employee has developed a medical condition or disease through repeated or prolonged exposure to a harmful effect at work.
Some of the more common injuries are:-
- Noise-induced hearing loss
- Dermatitis or skin damage
- Repetitive strain injury from repeated hand/finger/wrist movements or movements of the shoulder
- Occupational asthma/bronchitis/breathing problems caused by exposure to dust and fumes
- Injuries from the use of vibrating tools, caused by the effects of prolonged vibration.
- Stress (a mental injury)
- Exposure to asbestos
In such cases, the exposure to the substance or to the harmful thing will normally have taken place over a period of time.
Cases involving exposure long ago can require proof that your employer should have been aware of the risk of harm. This can only be judged with the state of health and safety knowledge at the time. This aspect is known as “foreseeability”. Where an injury or disease can be foreseen, a duty to take care will arise (LINK to Negligence/General Liability).
Certain illnesses have generally recognised “dates of knowledge” being dates when most employers should have been aware of the risk.
Some employees exposed to a harmful effect may suffer injury and some may not. If it can be proved that the exposure caused or materially contributed to the onset of the disease or condition, you may have a valid claim. If an injury or disease can be foreseen to some of the employees exposed, but not to all the employees exposed, a duty of care will still arise and if the duty is breached by the employer, the employer cannot say that the effect was more serious in a certain employee because of some specific vulnerability which he or she possessed.
In many cases, specific regulations apply such as:-
- The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 which regulate exposure to certain harmful substances. Exposure to some substances is unlawful and in other cases, a risk assessment must be carried out and steps implemented to reduce the risk to a safe level or better still, eliminate the risk altogether. Instruction and training must be provided
- The Noise at Work Regulations 1989 which apply to noise exposure from 1990, and the Noise at Work Regulations 2005 which apply from 2006. The 1990 noise limit was 85-90 decibels and in 2006 it was reduced to 80 to 85 decibels over an 8 hour day. The lower limit is the first action level – an employer must assess the risk and reduce it to the lowest level practicable by providing hearing protection. The upper limit is the second action level. At this level, the source of the noise must be reduced.
- Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002 and earlier regulations such as the Asbestos Regulations 1969 and Control of Asbestos at Work Regs 1987. The regulations set hygiene levels for workers exposed to airborne asbestos fibres. Lack of knowledge that asbestos is present does not provide a defence for an employer. The difficulty with asbestos claims is the long interval (15 to 20 years) between exposure and illness.