Are infectious diseases acquired at work eligible for workers’ compensation?

Sometimes exposure to infectious diseases through airborne respiratory droplets, blood, or other person-to-person contact at work results in an illness.

This is most common in industries like health care and special education. For example, a nurse might be stuck by a used needle, a doctor may treat a patient infected with COVID-19, 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, Iowa and Nebraska law distinguish 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.” Iowa and Nebraska law contain similar language.

Wisconsin and South Dakota law do not contain similar language, but both look to the particular job activities.

So, when is it considered an “occupational disease,” which is covered by workers’ compensation?

One example would be when the person’s employment increased the risk of a “proximately caused” 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.

Temporary state laws address first responders with COVID-19

If first responders in Minnesota or Wisconsin are infected with COVID-19, the infection may be presumed work related under temporary laws.

The Minnesota law covers first responders, health care workers and those who provide child care for these groups. It became effective April 8, 2020, and has a sunset provision of May 1, 2021. Read our blog post on the Minnesota first responder law for more details.

The Wisconsin law covers first responders. It became effective April 17, 2020, and will end 30 days after the Public Health Emergency Executive Orders expire. Read our blog post on the Wisconsin first responder law for details.

What to do when an employee’s been exposed to infection

Because it can sometimes take extensive time and testing 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 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, wage loss if quarantined, 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:

This is not intended to serve as legal advice for individual fact-specific legal cases or as a legal basis for your employment practices.

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