Navigating Workplace Exposure Claims Under the Illinois Worker’s Occupational Disease Act

8.1.2023 Blog

In today’s fast-paced world, employees are constantly exposed to countless germs and bacteria before they even arrive at work. However, when these near-constant exposures lead to illnesses or diseases, the Illinois Workers’ Occupational Diseases Act (the Act) provides employees with the opportunity to recover benefits for workplace exposures.

The Relevant Inquiry: Connection Between Duties and Disease

The primary question in a workplace exposure claim under the Act is whether there is a clear connection between an employee’s duties, work conditions, and the diseases they contracted. Employers and defense attorneys have argued that a range of standards should apply in employees proving their exposure to an illness can be deemed compensable.

  • Some argue that the existence of bacteria in the workplace is enough.
  • Others argue that tests to confirm the existence of the bacteria are necessary.

In practice, the burden of proof for the claimant is seemingly low, requiring a fact-specific analysis in each case.

In the past, claimants were often required to identify a specific instance of exposure at work.  However, the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission has concluded that pinpointing an exact source of exposure may not be necessary to establish compensability.

Case Studies

            Lora Suter v. Visiting Nurses Assn

In the case of Lora Suter v. Visiting Nurses Assn., (93 WC 42419), the petitioner was an at-home nurse exposed to the bacteria pseudomonas aeruginosa while caring for a  patient with a reputation for poor hygienic habits.

The arbitrator found favor of the petitioner, emphasizing the quantity, frequency, and proximity of this bacteria to which Ms. Suter was exposed due to her work. At trial, another nurse who cared for the same patient confirmed the work conditions were as unhygienic as described. Medical testimony then confirmed that her sinus infection was caused by the same type of bacteria that was present in the patient’s wound.

The increased exposure through Ms. Suter’s employment was a primary factor in the arbitrator’s finding of compensability.

When the employer attempted to argue that a connection between the patient’s infection and Ms. Suter’s did not exist, the arbitrator ruled that proving the bacteria’s same species was enough to establish a rational connection between Ms. Suter’s work and her illness, even though a direct link and medical testimony were challenging to establish. It is important to note that Ms. Suter’s exposure to the bacteria lasted just over a month and she never pinpointed a specific event of exposure.

            Sperling v. Indus. Commission

The Supreme Court’s decision in Sperling v. Indus. Commission, 129 Ill. 2d 416 (1989) clarified that direct proof is not a requirement to establish compensability under the Act. In making such a conclusion, the Court cited a 1975 amendment to the Act that removed the term “direct” when discussing connections between diseases and workplace exposure. In some cases, testimony from colleagues confirming the alleged conditions can be weighed in the claimant’s favor.

The Sperling Court noted, however, that the Commission’s decision did not explicitly apply a direct-proof requirement. The Commission’s role is crucial in assessing the credibility of a witness’s testimony. In other words, employee testimony on workplace conditions may not be enough to establish causation. Testimony that connects workplace conditions to an employee’s illness can be countered by testimony showing that exposure to the pathogen at issue is no higher in the workplace than it is in public. In Sperling, one medical expert testified that without information about the Petitioner’s personal life (regarding other possible exposures to Hepatitis B), a conclusion could not be made that the disease was contracted from workplace exposure.

             Omron Elecs v. Ill. Workers’ Comp. Comm’n

In the case of Omron Elecs v. Ill. Workers’ Comp. Comm’n, 21 N.E.3d 1245 (2014), the petitioner successfully established the burden of proof with a direct link between the decedent’s bacterial infection  and work-related travel. In Omron, the decedent’s death was caused by bacterial meningitis which is common in certain parts of the world. Medical testimony played a pivotal role, indicating that the likelihood of exposure to the bacteria was significantly higher during a work-related trip to Brazil,  as it was two to five times higher than in the United States.

Key Takeaway

Petitioners face obstacles in meeting the burden of proof due to the broad scope of evidence that arbitrators must consider in establishing causation. Not only should exposure to a pathogen in public spaces be analyzed but also an individual’s personal life and habits can be scrutinized for creative defense as demonstrated in Sperling.  Furthermore, if a physician does not causally connect the condition to the exposure in a timely fashion, or at all, this could very well be fatal to the petitioner’s claim.

Workplace exposure claims under the Illinois Worker’s Occupational Diseases Act require careful consideration and investigation and should be questioned heavily.  If you need assistance determining whether your employee may have sustained a compensable workplace exposure, please reach out to our attorneys here.