ANSWER: No. Most on-the-job injuries or illnesses are caused by an accident. However, there are many other injuries disabling illnesses which are compensable under the workers’ compensation system but which are not caused by an accident.
The most common examples are occupational diseases. An occupational disease occurs when, because of being exposed to the work environment, the worker develops a condition which is peculiar to the workplace. By peculiar I mean that it is a condition to which members of the public in general would not be exposed.
An example of this is the condition of spisimosis which is caused by exposure to lint and dust which is a common condition which is contacted by many textile workers. Another condition is silicosis which is caused by breathing in silicon dust. Brick workers are peculiarly exposed to this condition and, unfortunately, many workers in brick production facilities contract silicosis.
Another common condition which is developed by exposure to the workplace but which is not an accident is carpal tunnel syndrome. This is a condition which commonly occurs with keyboard operators that is, people who sit at a computer all day long and type. Repetitive use of keyboards many times leads to carpal tunnel syndrome which can be disabling.
Any type of job which requires repetitive motion which can cause injury to the body can lead to a workers’ compensation claim.
Another example of a repetitive motion job arose in a case we handled 17 years ago on behalf of a worker employed at a meat packing plant. This worker’s only job was to chop off the heads of hog carcasses. He used a machete to perform this function and testified that it took three or four strokes for each head before the hog’s body was fully decapitated. The Industrial Commission held that this was a repetitive-motion job and that the injury to this worker’s body as a result of repeatedly making the same motion with his hand and wrist was compensable and the worker could recover full workers’ compensation benefits.
Another exception in which workers’ compensation benefits can be recovered even if there is no accident is with respect to back injuries.
Back injuries are probably the most common workers’ compensation injury. For years deserving workers who injured their back while engaged in heavy lifting were unable to recover workers’ compensation benefits unless they could prove that the injury was caused by an accident.
In most cases, these back injuries were not due to an accident but instead occurred during the normal workday activities of a worker who lifted heavy objects.
In recognition of this unfairness to workers who repetitively lifted heavy objects the General Assembly changed the law so that, with respect to back injuries, a “specific traumatic incident” is compensable. A worker whose back is injured can recover from a “specific traumatic incident.” The law makes such “specific traumatic incidents” synonymous with “injury by accident.” However, this law only applies to the back. It does not apply to the shoulders, the knees or any other part of the body.