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Occupational disease victims neglected by workers’ compensation laws

It is becoming evident that the worker’s compensation system, which was supposed to provide a faster, cheaper and less adversarial way to resolve disputes between workers and employers over job related injuries and illnesses, is leaving out those suffering from occupational diseases.

One problem is that the system as currently constructed requires claimants to establish that workplace exposure more likely caused the disease than all other possible factors. However, most diseases triggered by on-the-job exposure can also be caused by factors such as genetics, exposure to carcinogens outside the workplace, diet, smoking, bad luck, etc. Pinpointing the exact cause with certainty is difficult.

The other main issue is filing deadlines based on time from the last exposure to the disease-causing hazard, not the actual diagnosis of the illness. Many occupational diseases take years, if not decades, to surface. This leaves most with job-related diseases without recourse under workers’ compensation laws.

A 2015 report by the nonprofit investigative news organization Center for Public Integrity concluded that for chemically induced illnesses and other occupational illnesses that can take years to develop, “workers’ comp rarely works at all.” The report cites a 2004 study by Professor J. Paul Leigh, an economist at the University of California, Davis, who estimated that more than 95 percent of fatal occupational diseases are not covered by workers’ compensation.

As a result, employers and insurers are abdicating their duties to compensate workers for lost wages and medical bills. Thus, the burden is falling on taxpayers, through social insurance programs, and the sick workers themselves.

Something must be done. A more equitable solution is needed—one that places the responsibility back on employers and insurers.

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