Sometimes exposure to infectious diseases through blood or other means at work results in an illness.
Although rare, this is most common in industries like healthcare and special education. For example, a nurse might be stuck by a used needle, a maintenance worker could be exposed when doing clean-up, or a special education instructor might sustain a bite that breaks the skin.
So, what happens if you do catch a virus at work or develop a disease that might be related to your job? Is it considered a work injury?
State laws define 'occupational diseases'
State laws differ on the subject.
Minnesota law distinguishes between “ordinary diseases of life” and “occupational diseases.”
Minnesota law says, “ordinary diseases of life to which the general public is equally exposed outside of employment are not compensable … Except where the exposure is peculiar to the occupation.”
Wisconsin and South Dakota law contain similar language.
So, when is it considered an “occupational disease,” which is covered by workers’ compensation?
Under Minnesota law, it’s when the person’s employment increased the risk of and “proximately caused” the disease. For example, one well-known case was the airline flight attendant who came down with the Hong Kong Flu after stopping in that country during a virulent outbreak.
As with most legal questions, determining whether an illness is compensable will depend heavily on the facts of each specific case.
What to do when an employee’s been exposed to infection
Because it can sometimes take months of tests to determine whether the exposure resulted in infection, sometimes employers are unsure what to do during that time in regard to workers’ compensation.
Two steps to take:
Report the exposure to your workers’ compensation insurer as soon as you learn of it.
It will likely start as an incident-only report, and it’s possible it will never result in a claim. But in the event it does, details from the initial report could be helpful in determining liability. That determination is based on whether the facts prove the exposure occurred in the workplace and whether their risk for exposure was greater than that of a member of the general public due to their work activity.
Follow your company’s policy on what do to do when an exposure occurs.
Have one point person assigned to make sure that all of the necessary tests and treatments take place. Workers’ compensation benefits typically do not cover the costs of medical tests following exposure, or preventive measures like hepatitis vaccines or flu shots. If your company isn’t experienced in dealing with exposure events, reach out to your company’s preferred medical clinic or another medical provider that you have a relationship with for guidance.
More resources on infectious diseases and work
To learn more about what to do if an employee is exposed to an infectious disease in the workplace, use these guides:
- Bloodborne pathogens resources from the MN Department of Labor and Industry
- Exposure to Blood: What healthcare personnel need to know from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- The flu CompTalk from SFM
This is not intended to serve as legal advice for individual fact-specific legal cases or as a legal basis for your employment practices.
This post was originally published on November 12, 2014, and updated on June 6, 2017.